Category: Archive

Hibernian Chronicle 62 years ago: Corrigan flies to ‘California’

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Edward T. O’Donnell

In mid-July 1938, the luck of the Irish seemed in plentiful supply. But as far as Douglas Corrigan was concerned, it was all going to the wrong guy.

On July 9, the unemployed airplane mechanic and amateur pilot flew non-stop from Long Beach, Calif. to Roosevelt Field on Long Island to break the record for a coast-to-coast flight. Yet the papers the next day were full of stories about another Irish American aviator, Howard Hughes, who was just about to begin his record-setting round-the-world flight.

The multi-millionaire dominated the headlines for the rest of the week as the media chronicled each stage of the journey. Hughes smashed the world record and received a hero’s welcome when he touched down at Floyd Bennett field in Brooklyn on July 14. The following day 500,000 turned out for huge tickertape parade up Broadway.

Corrigan, overwhelmed with frustration, wondered what a guy had to do to get noticed. On two occasions he’d been denied a permit to attempt a transAtlantic flight to Europe. Officials at the Federal Bureau of Air Commerce cited his inexperience as a pilot and the dreadful condition of his airplane, a 1929 Curtiss Robin monoplane he’d rescued from a scrapheap. He could simply defy the government, but that might only land him in jail. Moreover, even if he succeeded, he might not get his headlines — transAtlantic flights, even solo ones, were hardly newsworthy by 1938.

So Corrigan, determined to get his share of aviation glory, hatched an ingenious plan. On July 18, 1938 he set off in his plane bound, he told his friends, for California. Instead, he pointed his plane northeast and soared out over the Atlantic. Twenty-eight hours and 13 minutes later (five hours better than Lindberg), he touched down at Baldonnel Airport near Dublin. “Just in from New York,” he announced to the startled airfield attendants. “Where am I?” When informed that he was in Ireland, Corrigan feigned shock. “You mean,” he said, “this isn’t California?”

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Word spread quickly about the wacky Yank who’d mistakenly made a 3,150-mile transAtlantic flight without benefit of a radio or navigational equipment other than a compass. Corrigan claimed that he’d followed the wrong end of the compass needle. “I must be a bum navigator,” he said.

For two weeks he was Ireland’s biggest celebrity. He met Eamon DeValera and dined with Ambassador Joseph Kennedy while in London awaiting a return flight.

When he returned to the U.S. on Aug. 4, “Wrong Way” Corrigan received a hero’s welcome, a tickertape parade, and massive celebration at Yankee Stadium.

Corrigan’s plan had worked to perfection. The bizarre circumstances of his feat guaranteed he’d get the fame he sought. And since the whole thing was, he said, an “honest mistake,” he avoided prosecution for making an unauthorized flight. His sole punishment was the suspension of his pilot’s license for five days.

After Corrigan earned a few dollars selling his story to magazines and Hollywood, he took up farming in California and disappeared from public view. He stuck to his story that his famous journey had been a mistake right up to the day he died in 1995. The sentimental still believed him. The rest understood his story for what it was: a brilliant bit of well-timed blarney.


€ July 12, 1691: Protestant forces led by William of Orange defeat the Catholic army of James II at the Battle of the Aughrim in Ireland. A century later, defenders of the Protestant Ascendancy formed the Orange Order (1795) and began holding annual parades in honor of this and other battles.

€ July 14, 1881: Outlaw William H. Bonney Jr., known popularly as “Billy the Kid,” is shot and killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett in Fort Sumner, N.M.

€ July 15, 1927: Countess Constance Markievicz dies. Born into the Protestant Ascendancy and married to a Polish nobleman, she nonetheless became a staunch Irish nationalist and public official.

€ July 18, 1969: Sen. Ted Kennedy’s car skids off a bridge and into a river on Chappaquiddick Island off Martha’s Vineyard. Kennedy escapes unharmed, but his companion, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowns.


€ July 13, 1942: Actor Harrison Ford born in Chicago.

€ July 13, 1818: Hugh O’Brien, first Irish mayor of Boston, born in Maguiresbridge, Co. Fermanagh.

€ July 15, 1899: Taoiseach Sean Lemass born in Ballybrack, Co. Dublin.

€ July 18, 1874: Revolutionary Cathal Brugha born in Dublin.

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