An exceptional and intrepid aviation pioneer find fame by stealth or plain dumb luck
|History can teach us a lot. It is not dry old facts, put away in a book and forgotten. This is about flesh-and-blood people who made choices, took risks and lived their lives to the full. That is why we remember them. Whether our subject was a hero or a fool, we’ll never know. He took the final answer with him to the grave in 1995.
Douglas Corrigan was hooked on aviation, right from the start. He took a test flight in 1926 for the princely sum of $2.50. He started flight lessons a week later. He later would teach flight school himself and the only time for his own flying
was at lunch when he would practice acrobatic flying.
He also worked for Lindbergh as a mechanic. He was so taken by Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic; he decided that he would duplicate the feat. Lindbergh had a 25,000-dollar custom built aircraft. Corrigan bought a beater; the cockpit leaked and the engine was worn out. He put in larger gas tanks. He tightened things up. He was ready to go.
His permit for a transatlantic flight was not approved. He was devastated. They said his airplane wasn’t good enough. Imagine that? Instead, he got permission to fly from Los Angeles to New York.
He made the flight in 1938, most would say by the grace of God. After a lot of discussion, he eventually got permission to fly back to Los Angeles.
This is where history gets a little hazy. It is known that the plane had no radio and a compass that was twenty years old. He would tell questioners later that he must have read the compass upside down.
He took off at night, in a fog, which continued for most of the flight. After twenty-six hours, he figured he should have been over Arizona and was really puzzled about the fog. This area should be sunny with a minimum amount of clouds. He took his plane lower to have a look. He saw only ocean. Did he overshoot LA? For some reason, he kept on his present heading.
It was a horrific flight. His feet got cold and he found the cockpit flooded with gasoline. He punched a hole in the cockpit floor with a screwdriver to drain the gasoline away from the exhaust manifold. I doubt if he smoked.
To say that people were a little surprised when he landed in Dublin, Ireland on fumes would be an understatement. He did receive 75,000 dollars in rewards for his trip. That would be more money than he would make in thirty years of flying.
Regulatory agencies were not so accommodating. His violations of law were recorded in a six hundred-word document. They temporarily suspended his license. They dismantled his plane.
The agencies only had one problem. He passed a polygraph test with the story of flying from New York to Los Angeles and ending up in Dublin. He became known as “wrong way” Corrigan. He was honored in his native country with ticker tape parades. That never happened for Lindbergh. Corrigan was disappointed that his hero, Lindbergh never acknowledged his feat.
Was he a hero or a nutcase? Was he just bad at geography? He did answer a questioner later in life with a veiled answer of, “I don’t always tell the truth.”
Regardless of what you decide about the story, great acts always require great courage. If you are lost over the Atlantic in a fog, who knows? You might just end up in Ireland. Say hello to the little people as we drink to your success.