He claimed he’d made a navigational error and misread his compass, thus gaining the nickname he’d bear for the rest of his life: Wrong Way Corrigan.
Like many young men of his generation, Corrigan was obsessed with flying. He took his first ride in a Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” in October 1925 (paying $2.50 for the privilege, the equivalent of about $35 today), and started flying lessons a week later.
He took a job as an aircraft mechanic with Ryan Aeronautical Company in San Diego, a few months before Charles Lindbergh commissioned the company to build the Spirit of St. Louis. As an aircraft mechanic, Corrigan assembled the wing and installed the gas tanks and instrument panel for Lindbergh’s plane, and pulled the chocks when Lindbergh took off from San Diego to New York.
Obsessed with duplicating Lindbergh’s feat, Corrigan decided his target would be the family homeland of Ireland. He spent his lunch hours practicing aerobatics, flying up to a dozen chandelles in a row until the company told him to stop. Corrigan moved his practice to a field further south, where his bosses couldn’t see him.
He moved from job to job as an aircraft mechanic, honing his flying skills. He started a passenger service with a partner, and barnstormed around the East Coast. In 1933, he spent $310 (just under $4,000 today) on a used 1929 Curtiss Robin OX-5, and began modifying it to fly the Atlantic.
This was foolhardy in the extreme. He took two old Wright Whirlwind engines and cobbled them together to make one engine with greater horsepower, installed extra fuel tanks, and applied for a permit from the Bureau of Air Commerce. They turned him down flat — his plane was too flimsy for transatlantic flying, though it was acceptable for cross-country flights. Undaunted, Corrigan kept working. He reapplied several times, and was turned down each time. By this time, he’d invested nearly $900 in his plane, but the plane had no radio and the compass was 20 years old.
A journalist later wrote about the plane: “He built it, or rebuilt it, practically as a boy would build a scooter out of a soapbox and a pair of old roller skates. It looked it. The nose of the engine hood was a mass of patches soldered by Corrigan himself into a crazy-quilt design. The door…was fastened together with a piece of baling wire.”
On July 9, 1938, Corrigan flew Sunshine from California to New York, cruising at 85 miles per hour. The flight took 27 hours. Toward the end, a gasoline leak threatened to bring him down; the cockpit filled with fumes. He arrived unannounced and unheralded; the big story was Howard Hughes, preparing to take off on a world tour.
Officially, Corrigan was supposed to return to California on July 17. In a hurry to meet his self-imposed deadline, he decided that repairing the gasoline leak would take too long. He loaded Sunshine with 320 gallons of gas, 16 gallons of oil, two chocolate bars, two boxes of fig bars, and 25 gallons of water, and took off at 5:15 in the morning — heading east, not west.
For the rest of his life, Corrigan maintained that he’d always intended to fly back to California, and his flight across the Atlantic was an error. This is unlikely; he was a skilled pilot. Officially, he claimed he’d discovered his “error” after 26 hours. This is not entirely consistent with known facts. After 10 hours, the gas tank began leaking again, and his feet were soaked with fuel. He punched a hole through the cockpit floor with a screwdriver to drain the fuel. Rather than look for an opportunity to land (the most reasonable thing to do if he were really flying to California), he increased his speed to lower his total flight time.
In any event, 28 hours and 13 minutes after takeoff, he landed in Ireland, a remarkable achievement considering he'd flown under IFR conditions by needle, ball, and airspeed, with only a magnetic compass to aid him. American aviation officials, however, were livid. They sent a 600-word(!) telegram listing the regulations he’d broken, but his punishment was a slap on the wrist — his license was suspended for 14 days. More people attended Corrigan’s ticker tape parade on his return to America than had attended Lindbergh’s, but Lindbergh himself never acknowledged Corrigan’s flight.
Corrigan cashed in on his fame, endorsing “wrong way” products, publishing an autobiography, and starring as himself in an RKO movie about his flight. He earned $75,000, the equivalent of well over a million dollars today.
In later years, he tested bombers during World War II, ran for the U.S. Senate on the Prohibition Party ticket (winning 2% of the vote), worked as a commercial pilot, and bought an orange grove in California, most of which he sold for development after his wife’s death in 1966. One of his sons died in a plane crash in 1972.
In 1988, on the golden anniversary of the flight, he allowed Sunshine to be displayed. After all those years, the jury-rigged engine still worked. That was the last time the plane was seen publicly; rumors suggest he dismantled the plane and stored pieces in several locations.
He died in 1995 and is buried in Santa Ana, California.