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Where Are They Now? Flying Irishman Douglas Corrigan

About the Flying Irishman Douglas Corrigan, history and biography of the man who made an accidental transatlantic flight.

Headline--1939: DOUGLAS CORRIGAN

At the Peak: Douglas Corrigan had a passion for sweets as well as for flying, and when he took off in his ancient Curtis Robin J-6 monoplane from New York's Floyd Bennett Airfield on the foggy morning of July 17, 1938, he had laid in a supply of fig bars along with the 320 gallons of fuel and 16 gallons of oil he carried with him. The 31-year-old pilot and airplane-mechanic was on his way back to the West Coast, he told the airport manager that morning; the day before he had arrived in New York from Long Beach, Calif., after setting a new nonstop transcontinental speed record by making the trip in less than 28 hours--and this in a battered craft he had picked up at an auction for $900 6 years earlier. The plane had failed safety inspections and was devoid of radio, safety devices, and beam finder.

Laden with extra gas tanks that blocked his view, Corrigan's plane taxied precariously for 3,200' along the east-west runway and was airborne at 5:17 A.M. And then, mysteriously, the plane swept round in a wide arc and headed out over the Atlantic. Ground crew and hangers-on at the airport stopped what they were doing and stared in disbelief as it continued going in the wrong direction.

Corrigan flew through an impenetrable fog for 24 hours, presumably convinced that he was California-bound. When he emerged from the murk some 24 hours later, he was flying over water, not over the arid plains of the Southwest. He was, in fact, headed in the general direction of Ireland. When he put down at Dublin's Baldonnel Airport, he blithely informed officials there that he had "accidentally" flown the wrong way.

Corrigan chalked up his navigational miscue to the fog, a faulty compass, and the lack of a radio. "My intention was to go down the coast and get around the mountains in Pennsylvania," he has explained. "I took off over Jamaica Bay, right where Kennedy Airport is now, and when I made my turn to come from east to west, I was in the fog." He realized his "mistake" when he looked down over Ireland, and noticed that "all the houses were made of stones, the roofs were grass, and the streets were cobblestones."

Corrigan returned to the States immediately and was accorded a hero's welcome, perhaps for having provided some mirth and excitement during the dreariest years of the nation's history. He was showered with requests for interviews and product endorsements, received a ticker-tape parade in New York City, and was congratulated publicly by the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph P. Kennedy. In 1939, Corrigan played himself in The Flying Irishman, a cinematization of his misadventure. All told, his new-found fame earned the $50-a-week pilot-mechanic over $75,000.

Corrigan tested bombers for the Government during W.W. II and also flew in the U.S. Army Ferry Command. In 1946 he ran for the U.S. Senate on the Prohibition ticket, after which he worked as a commercial pilot--this time for a small California airline. In 1950, he bought a 20-acre orange grove in Santa Ana, Calif., settling down there with his 3 sons and his wife Elizabeth, who died in 1966.

And Today: He lives in comfortable obscurity in the same house he's occupied since 1950, although the grove was sold in 1969. Corrigan enjoys an easy life these days. "We have enough to live on, so I guess I won't have to work any more," he says. Not long ago, he was asked--once again--if he had really meant to fly to California. "Sure," he answered. Then he added, "Well, at least I've told that story so many times that I believe it myself now."

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