In 1938, more than 10 years after Charles Lindbergh successfully crossed the Atlantic solo in the Spirit of St. Louis, another American, Douglas Corrigan, made the crossing as well, taking off from New York’s Floyd Bennett Field and landing 28 hours and change later in Ireland. But when he landed, Corrigan looked around and asked where he was!
Officially, Corrigan wasn’t attempting to cross the Atlantic at all but to fly non-stop from the East Coast of the United Staters to the West Coast, only he got confused in the cloudy weather and wound up flying across The Pond instead of the 48 united states. He almost immediately got the nickname “Wrong Way Corrigan” for his colossal flub. What an idiot, many said of him.
Except, he wasn’t. It was all a charade. We wouldn’t even call it a lie, because we’re pretty sure that even Corrigan didn’t expect anyone to believe the tale.
Corrigan, born in Galveston, Texas, in 1907, fell in love with flying shortly thereafter, growing up, as much as he ever would, anyway, to become an aircraft mechanic and then a pilot. Like millions of others, he was inspired by Lindbergh’s crossing and wanted to one day do it himself. The only problems were, he had no money, no backing and no support, which are all really different names for the same problem.
Oh, the flight itself happened, all right. Corrigan flew across the Atlantic with more than 350 gallons of gas in a modified Curtiss Robin that he reportedly rescued from an airplane junkyard. The plane’s tanks were leaking so badly that Corrigan even at one point had to cut a hole in the floor of the cockpit to let the leaking gas drain out through the floor, which probably kept him from passing out from the fumes or going up in flames all together.
While many Americans really believed the wrong way story, Corrigan’s target audience wasn’t the general public but aviation overseers, who had forbidden him from making the Atlantic crossing because they considered the plane “un-airworthy.” They did, however, give him permission to fly across the U.S. of A. Which he did, or at least tried to do, or so he said.
In a movie clip taken of him shortly after his return from Ireland—he had wisely shipped his plane back to the States—the aviator explains his misadventure in a winking, smiling way that would leave no student of human expression in the dark about the nature of the story.
And because bureaucrats are going to be bureaucrats, he got in trouble for the flight, losing his pilot’s license for 14 days, which, as it turned out, was precisely how long it took for his plane to make it back via ship to the U.S.
Far from turning on him, Americans loved Corrigan, and showed it. His ticker tape parade in New York City was one of the biggest ever, bigger by far than Lucky Lindy’s, and the “Wrong Way Corrigan” nickname became part of the lexicon. The hit TV show “Gilligan’s Island” even paid homage to him in two episodes in the ’60s in which a character based on Corrigan mistakenly winds up on the deserted island not once but twice without ever helping save the rest of the castaways.
In fact, in 1988, on the 50th anniversary of the “wrong way” flight, a team of admirers and aviation historians helped him reassemble his famous Curtiss Robin for the occasion and fired up the engine. They preempted another unauthorized flight by the 81-year-old by tying the tail of the airplane to a nearby tree.