Sense of Direction

When I was doing flight training in California, I was based at Long Beach Airport. It’s a sizeable field, with five paved runways, the longest a full 10,000 feet, but there isn’t too much commercial traffic, partly because of noise restrictions (it’s totally embedded in the greater LA conurbation) and partly because Los Angeles International is only 18 miles away.

The site was originally named Daugherty Field after Earl S. Daugherty established a very early flying school (possibly the world’s first) on the property in 1919. The famous aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart took her first ever flight there in 1920.

Daugherty’s obviously an Irish name, but I’m even more proud to be a spiritual descendant of the star of “The Flying Irishman”, an RKO picture of 1939. Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan played himself in the autobiographical movie, with the other parts filled by Hollywood regulars.

Wrong-Way CorriganCorrigan earned fame and his nickname by making an unauthorised solo transatlantic flight in 1938, claiming that he had “accidentally” flown East instead of West because bad light made it impossible to read his compass. Departing Bennett Field in Brooklyn in the early dawn, he landed at Casement Aerodrome outside Dublin 28 hours later, instead of his home base at Daugherty Field, Long Beach.

The fact was that Corrigan had been applying for official permission to fly the Atlantic for more than a year, but his aircraft had never been approved as airworthy for the role. Even the incoming non-stop flight from California to New York had only been given provisional approval. This was not merely bureaucracy. Corrigan’s plane was a heavily-patched 1929 Curtiss Robin which he had extensively modified in an idiosyncratic way, with a new engine assembled from the components of two non-functional ones, and extra fuel tanks attached in various places. The Bureau of Air Commerce (forerunner of the FAA) grounded the plane as un-airworthy (for any flying at all) in 1937 when he made his first flight to New York. Corrigan had probably planned an unofficial Atlantic crossing at that time, but had to ship the plane back to Long Beach for further modifications to make it legal, so that he would at least be allowed to take off again at New York.

In 1938, when he departed Brooklyn, it was in a plane that had no visibility to the front because of the placement of one of the additional fuel tanks. After flying the “wrong way” for ten hours, he felt his feet cold, and noticed that a leak in one of the tanks had filled the bottom of the cockpit with gasoline. He stabbed a hole in the floor with a screwdriver to let it drain out, taking care to make the hole on the opposite side to the red-hot exhaust pipe. It’s not recorded how much fuel actually remained when he landed in Ireland.

Corrigan insisted, straight-faced, for the rest of his life that his transatlantic flight had been an accident. His license was suspended for 14 days as a very mild punishment. In fact, coming back by ship, the suspension expired the same day as he arrived in New York. The New York Post printed its headline in reverse in his honour, and the city gave him a bigger tickertape welcome than had been received by Lindbergh. As well as fees for the movie, he made money by endorsing products, such as a watch that ran backward.

I admire such bloody-minded determination, but I’m not like that myself. Too reasonable — that’s why I’m not famous.


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