Douglas Corrigan, an American aviator born in Galveston, Texas, earns the nickname “Wrong Way” Corrigan on July 17, 1938. After a transcontinental flight from Long Beach, California, to New York City, he flies from Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, New York, to Ireland, though his flight plan is filed to return to Long Beach. He claims his unauthorized flight is due to a navigational error, caused by heavy cloud cover that obscures landmarks and low-light conditions, causing him to misread his compass. However, he is a skilled aircraft mechanic and has made several modifications to his own plane, preparing it for his transatlantic flight. He had been denied permission to make a nonstop flight from New York to Ireland, and his “navigational error” is seen as deliberate. Nevertheless, he never publicly admits to having flown to Ireland intentionally.
On July 9, 1938, Corrigan departs California in his 1929 Curtiss Robin OX-5 monoplane bound for Floyd Bennett Field, Brooklyn, New York. With the Robin cruising at 85 miles per hour (137 km/h) for maximum fuel efficiency, the outward journey takes him 27 hours. Fuel efficiency becomes critical towards the end of the flight as a gasoline leak develops, filling the cockpit with fumes.
Upon his unannounced arrival at Floyd Bennett Field, in the midst of Howard Hughes‘s preparations for takeoff on a world tour, Corrigan decides repairing the leak will take too long if he is to meet his schedule. His logged flight plan has him returning to California on July 17. Before take off, Corrigan asks the manager of Floyd Bennett Field, Kenneth P. Behr, which runway to use, and Behr tells him to use any runway as long as he does not take off to the west, in the direction of the administration building where Behr has his office. As recorded in Corrigan’s autobiography, Behr wishes him “Bon Voyage” prior to take-off, perhaps in a nod to Corrigan’s intentions to fly the Atlantic. Upon take off at 5:15 on the morning of July 17 with 320 US gallons of gasoline and 16 US gallons of oil, Corrigan heads east from the 4,200-foot runway of Floyd Bennett Field and keeps going. Behr later swears publicly that he has no foreknowledge of Corrigan’s intentions.
Corrigan claims to have noticed his “error” after flying for about 26 hours. This is not entirely consistent with his claim that after 10 hours, he feels his feet go cold. The cockpit floor is awash with gasoline leaking from the unrepaired tank. He uses a screwdriver to punch a hole through the cockpit floor so that the fuel will drain away on the side opposite the hot exhaust pipe, reducing the risk of a midair explosion. Had he been truly unaware he was over ocean, it seems likely he would descend at this point. Instead, he claims to increase the engine speed by almost 20% in the hope of decreasing his flight time.
Corrigan lands at Baldonnel Aerodrome, County Dublin, on July 18, after a 28-hour, 13-minute flight. His provisions for the flight consisted of just two chocolate bars, two boxes of fig bars, and 25 US gallons of water. Corrigan’s plane has fuel tanks mounted on the front, allowing him to see only out of the sides. He has no radio and his compass is 20 years old.
Aviation officials require 600 words to list the regulations broken by his flight in a telegram, a medium that encourages brevity by charging at a rate per word. Despite the extent of Corrigan’s illegality, he receives only a mild punishment a his pilot’s certificate is suspended for 14 days. He and his plane return to New York on the steamship Manhattan and arrive on August 4, the last day of his suspension. His return is marked with great celebration. More people attend his Broadway ticker tape parade than had honored Charles Lindbergh after his triumph. He is also given a ticker tape parade in Chicago.