Imagine a brash astronaut thumbing his nose at the space agency and taking an old Mercury spacecraft all the way to the moon, then claiming it was a mistake, and you get a glimmer of Douglas "Wrong Way" Corrigan's feat 50 years ago.
"My compass froze. I guess I flew the wrong way," Corrigan claimed on July 18, 1938, after making a forbidden New York-to-Dublin flight in a used Curtiss-Robin monoplane on which he'd spent $900. Plus $90 for gas and oil.He has steadfastly maintained he thought he was returning to his home base of Long Beach, Calif., after federal aviation authorities denied him permission to fly to Ireland.
But Corrigan, now 81 and living in Santa Ana, Calif., hinted in a telephone interview last week that his wrong-way explanation may change after he flies again to Dublin on Sunday, this time as an honored guest for three days of ceremonies commemorating his flight.
"Maybe this time over in Dublin, I'll tell them another story. We'll see," he said Thursday.
Corrigan's "wrong-way" explanation sounded like pure blarney at the time - he was made a lifetime member of the Liars Club - but America and Ireland loved it.
He was the overnight guest of the U.S. ambassadors in Dublin and London. After he returned to New York by ship, with his plane in a crate, he was given a ticker-tape parade. There was even a meeting with President Franklin Roosevelt.
A movie was turned out by RKO Studios,"The Flying Irishman," starring Corrigan as himself, and there were magazine articles and an autobiography, "That's My Story." He estimated he grossed $85,000 from tours and speeches.
As punishment for his journey, the Bureau of Air Commerce, forerunner of the Federal Aviation Administration, suspended Corrigan from flying for five days. Those five days were served while he was still aboard ship on the way home.
Whatever the true story, Corrigan had joined the ranks of his hero, Charles Lindbergh, and Wiley Post by making a solo, nonstop, single-engine crossing of the Atlantic.
He also dispelled the notion that air feats were only for millionaires and well-financed aviators.
When Corrigan was 20, he was a woodworker at Ryan Aircraft in San Diego and helped build Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis for the 1927 New York-to-Paris solo trans-Atlantic flight.
Corrigan got his pilot's license the next year. He bought a leather flight jacket just like Lindy's, scraped his money together and studied navigation.
He bought his monoplane for $310 in 1931, and spent an additional $590 modifying it into a long-distance machine. Before the flight to Ireland, he flew from Long Beach to New York nonstop in 27 hours on July 7-8.
Then the Bureau of Air Commerce refused to grant permission for a trans-Atlantic flight, on grounds his plane, loaded with 330 gallons of gasoline and five gallons of oil, was 55 percent too heavy for a safe flight.
Corrigan took off from New York's Floyd Bennett Field on July 17, saying he was headed for Long Beach. He landed at Dublin 28 hours and 13 minutes later, 3,150 miles from New York.
"There had been a haze near the ground and when I was 500 feet high, there was fog below the plane," Corrigan once said of his flight. "When I started to turn west I noticed the top compass was not working right, due to the liquid having leaked out. There was another compass down on the floor that I had set to fly a westerly course, so now I turned the plane until the parallel lines matched, and flew over the fog."
The wrong way.
He had no radio and his $1 wristwatch stopped. "The only modern instrument I had was a turn-and-bank indicator," said Corrigan, who subsisted on fig and chocolate bars and some water during his flight.
"I knew I wasn't in Long Beach when I dropped out of the overcast over Dublin," he said. "The place was greener and some of the houses had hay roofs."