"WRONG WAY" CORRIGAN AND THE "ACCIDENTAL" HERO
Eighty years ago this week, human error became heroic. This driven, “can do” nation opened its arms to folly and fallibility. Those arms have been open ever since, thanks to “Wrong Way” Corrigan.
In the dawn’s early light of July 17, 1938, Douglas Corrigan taxied his twin engine plane down a runway in Brooklyn. The scene was reminiscent of eleven years earlier when the pilot’s name was Lindbergh. But Corrigan, though lucky, was no Lindy.
His plane, a “winged piano box” held together with solder, its door tied with baling wire, bounced down the runway, then went full throttle. But as the ground crew watched in amazement, Corrigan banked left, not right. His flight plan read “California,” but he turned east and disappeared into the clouds.
When Charles Lindbergh flew the Atlantic in 1927, he electrified America and the world. But by 1938, America was a different country. Scarred by Depression, the nation seemed jaded, world weary. Hadn’t Lindbergh succumbed to tragedy — the kidnapping of his son? Hadn’t the Jazz Age gone flat, the flappers flabby? Not every boy could be Lindbergh, not every girl Shirley Temple. What about the rest of us, the ones who strive but slip? Who set a course for fame and fortune but settle for five and dime? Don’t we deserve heroes?
Growing up, Douglas Corrigan shuffled around Texas and Southern California, working odd jobs. “I never had any aims,” he said. “That’s why I never got anywhere.” But in 1925, Corrigan paid $2.50 for a 20-minute flight in a small plane. He was hooked. THIS!
After a few flying lessons, Corrigan became a test pilot for Ryan Aircraft. The small San Diego firm was near bankruptcy when it got a $10,000 contract to build Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis. Corrigan worked on the wings. When Lindbergh completed his world shattering flight, Corrigan vowed to do the same. But being Irish, with red hair and an infectious smile, Corrigan dreamed of flying from New York — not to Paris — but to Dublin.
Aviation authorities were not so sure. The plane Corrigan called “Sunshine” was too jerry-rigged, too dangerous. “He built it, or rebuilt it,” a journalist wrote, “practically as a boy would build a scooter out of a soapbox and a pair of old roller skates.” “Sunshine” seemed barely safe for any flight, let alone across the Atlantic. But Corrigan, while barnstorming around Depression America, kept applying for permits to make his epic journey. Denied. Denied.
In the summer of 1938, Corrigan finally got permission to fly “non-stop from Los Angeles to New York, with a non-stop return.” His cross-country flight dodged dust storms and lightning but set a new speed record — 27 hours. He landed with his feet soaked in gasoline from a leak. He had four gallons of fuel.
A week later, deciding he didn’t have time to fix his leaky tank, Douglas Corrigan threw some chocolate bars, two boxes of Fig Newtons and a quart of water in his cockpit and took off. His flight plan and map steered him to L.A. He was next seen in Dublin.
“I'm Douglas Corrigan," he told startled airport workers. "Just got in from New York. Where am I? I intended to fly to California." Asked “How did you end up here?” he said “I got mixed up in the clouds. I must have flown the wrong way.”
America went berserk. Now here was a screw-up for the masses. Or perhaps a guy who stuck it to authorities? Or a guy -- well, who cared? Back in Manhattan, Corrigan got a ticker tape parade bigger than Lindbergh’s. He toured the country, flying “Sunshine” into urban airports, then riding through cheering crowds. Everyone wanted in on the joke. Mobile, Alabama gave Corrigan a map case without a map. In Atlanta, he sat backwards in the parade car. Tulsa made him an honorary Indian, Chief Wrong-Way. Abilene, Texas gave him a watch that ran in reverse.
But the question remains. Was “Wrong Way” Corrigan confused or just clever? Asked again and again, he played the innocent, though often with a wry smile. When clouds parted over a city, he'd thought it was Baltimore. Gosh, must have been Boston. The compass at his feet, frozen by leaking gas, had pointed west, always west. When he finally flew low over the Atlantic, he thought it was the Pacific. The title of his autobiography said it best —That’s My Story.
Confused or clever? I like to think he was both. Douglas Corrigan belongs to that small group of America’s accidental heroes, men who strive and strive but fall short. Then genius and folly combine, giving them success by not succeeding. The list includes Tiny Tim. The 1962 Mets. The Edsel. The current cult movie “The Room.”
Douglas Corrigan died in 1995. He stuck to his story for the rest of his life.
“Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” – Steve Jobs