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This Week in Texas History: Barnstormer takes wrong turn into history book

By Bartee Haile

A Texas-born barnstormer coaxed his second-hand airplane into the thick clouds over a New York airfield on Jul. 17, 1938 and to the surprise of puzzled onlookers turned a routine flight into an unscheduled trans-Atlantic crossing.

The handful of spectators waited in vain for Douglas Corrigan to set a course for  California.  When he vanished from sight on an easterly heading, one witness remarked, “I’ve got a hunch this fellow is on his way to Europe.”

By accident or design, and no one ever knew for sure, the 31 year old aviator winged his way toward Ireland, where instant fame awaited “Wrong Way” Corrigan.

The Galveston native stole the thunder of another Lone Star flying sensation, Howard Hughes.  Four days earlier, the Houston millionaire landed at New York City after circling the globe in the record-breaking time of three days, 19 hours and 17 minutes.  Painfully uncomfortable in the public eye, Hughes shrugged off his rave reviews.  Even at age 33 the wealthy industrialist put an eccentric premium on his privacy, an early indication of the bizarre behavior to come.

Hughes, of course, easily afforded the most modern plane on the market, the latest navigational gadgetry and a top-notch crew.  Dirt-poor Corrigan, on the other hand, challenged the Atlantic all by his lonesome with six bits in his pocket, a map torn from an outdated almanac and an antique aircraft he bought for $900.  To the man in the street struggling to survive the Great Depression, he was an infinitely more appealing figure than the stand-offish tycoon Hughes.

The courtship of Corrigan’s parents came right out of a Texas romance novel.  The couple actually met at the Alamo.  Their first child was born at Galveston in January 1907 and christened Clyde after his father.  Six years later, the family moved to San Antonio, where the boy peddled newspapers on downtown street corners.

The elder Clyde went away on business and never came home.  Two years dragged by before the abandoned housewife heard from her spouse, who informed her by mail that his future plans did not include her and their three children.  Mrs. Corrigan filed for divorce and, needing no reminder of her no-good husband, changed her son’s name to Douglas.

Growing up in southern California when barnstorming was all the rage, young Corrigan was bitten by the bug.  After knocking around for more than a decade as a mechanic and part-time pilot, he decided to go for the glory.

Corrigan flew across the continent in July 1938 and touched down in Gotham with just four gallons of fuel in his tank.  With Hughes set to circumnavigate the planet the very next day, his arrival went unnoticed.

Hundreds of miles from the Irish coast, a fuel line sprang a leak leaving Corrigan ankle-deep in gasoline.  Realizing a single spark might blow him to smithereens, he punched a hole with a screwdriver in the bottom of the craft.  The gas drained out saving him from certain death in the icy north Atlantic.

Twenty-eight hours after leaving the U.S., Corrigan switched off his single engine in Dublin, Ireland.  Rising from the cramped cockpit, he said with a broad smile, “I’m Douglas Corrigan.  Just got in from New York.  Where am I?  I intended to fly to California.”

Over the cheers of the excited crowd, he explained his “mistake” to the American minister.  Disoriented by the dense clouds over New York, he simply took a wrong turn.  He then trusted a compass that he learned too late was broken.

The amused diplomat shook his head.  “It was hazy when you took off, was it?  Well, your story seems a little hazy, too.”

To the delight of the press and public, the impish pilot stuck to this implausible story.  Back in the States, he was heralded as “Wrong Way” Corrigan, a coast-to-coast celebrity.  

He milked the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for all it was worth.  His autobiography was in the bookstores in time for Christmas, and the next year he played himself in the motion picture “The Flying Irishman.”

Anxious to be in on the joke, countless cities and towns honored the personable barnstormer.  In keeping with the spirit of the tongue-in-cheek achievement, Corrigan was initiated into an Oklahoma tribe as “Chief Wrong Way,” and Abilene admirers presented him with a watch that ran backwards.

At his island birthplace, the award was in a more serious vein.  Galvestonians renamed the local airport Corrigan Field, a fitting tribute to a hometown hero.

Aviation purists dismissed the Corrigan flight as a foolhardy stunt.  No new trans-Atlantic trail was blazed, and the daredevil risked life and limb for a cheap thrill.

But the stuffed-shirt critics missed the point.  More a Walter Mitty than a Charles Lindbergh or even a Howard Hughes, Douglas Corrigan turned an armchair fantasy into a seat-of-the-pants adventure, and Americans everywhere loved him for it.

Bartee welcomes your comments and questions at barteehaile@gmail.com or P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393 and invites you to visit his web site barteehaile.com.

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