“Where am I?”
The smiling young pilot was apparently nonplussed. He had landed at Dublin’s airport without a permit – or even a passport – and was now confronting several frowning custom officers.
“I took off from New York with the intention of flying to Los Angeles,” he explained. “After twenty-six hours coming down through the clouds I was puzzled to see water instead of land. I must have misread my compass and followed the wrong end of the needle.”
The Irish, never averse to a good yarn, looked at his primitive plane and cheered him for his audacity. When word of his remarkable flight reached the United States, the pilot, Douglas Corrigan, became known as “Wrong Way” Corrigan.
The story of Corrigan, an Irish-American mechanic, has been called an Irish fairy tale, an impish yarn spun with a straight face. It unfolded in 1938 but really began when Corrigan, at age twenty, worked on the team that built The Spirit of Saint Louis, the plane that took Charles Lindberg across the Atlantic. Lindberg became Corrigan’s hero. His dream: to make that same flight himself.
But Corrigan was just an ordinary guy struggling to make ends meet. Still, he managed to get a pilot’s license, and began flying in his spare time. In 1931 he bought his own plane. It was a battered old machine, but Corrigan loved it, and radically changed it, so that, one day, he would be able to duplicate his hero’s transatlantic flight. He was set to go – except for one major obstacle: more stringent regulations for trips overseas.
Applying for a government permit, he was turned down because his plane was too old. Then, in 1938, he got a license for flights between Los Angeles and New York. Seeing him him take off for Los Angeles, people wondered why he headed northeast instead of west.
The world laughed - an unlikely hero, a mirthful, courageous individual who thumbed his nose at authority.
Back in New York, Corrigan was treated to a ticker-tape parade on Broadway. A nationwide tour followed. He met with President Roosevelt, received membership in the Liar’s Club in Wisconsin, was hailed as “Chief Wrong Way” by a Native American tribe, showered with compasses, and given a watch that ran backward.
Asked about his flight, his response was always the same: a grin and “Man, I didn’t mean to do this at all.”
Bo Zaunders has written four nonfiction books for children and illustrated two. He is also a photographer specializing in food and travel. Like Corrigan, he loves adventures. You can find Feathers, Flaps & Flops in the iNK Books & Media Store.
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The Nonfiction Minute returns on 9/12/20.
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