Douglas Corrigan found himself in the wrong hemisphere on July 18, 1938 when his highly modified airplane Sunshine landed at Baldonnel Aerodome in Ireland 28 hours after departure from Brooklyn. The original flight plan had Corrigan departing for California the morning of July 17, but a “navigational error” had his aircraft heading eastward out over the ocean. Corrigan later asserted that heavy clouds hid surface landmarks and made reading his compass difficult.
A closer look at the circumstances suggest that even a cranky GPS would not have turned Corrigan back. He never admitted that the navigational error was deliberate, but, for years, Corrigan had been seeking permission for a transatlantic crossing to rival Charles Lindbergh’s. He was denied approval on multiple occasions until receiving an experimental license and making extensive repairs to the plane. On the morning of July 17, the field manager Kenneth Behr wished Corrigan a suspicious “bon voyage” and an admonition not to depart to the west, suggesting the conspiracy was on. Corrigan claimed to finally realize his error after 26 hours, but strangely enough, never descended when a mid-flight fuel leak threatened.
Corrigan’s plane, a real piece of work, would have made an engineering student proud. Patched together with the aviation equivalent of duct tape and hot melt glue, its pilot found himself hunched over in the cockpit, unable to see forward for the extra fuel tanks, and unable to see the ground properly through poor window space. Apparently, Corrigan also found proper instrumentation worthless. The Sunshine lacked a radio and carried a 20 year old compass. It is remarkable that he could land intact. But land he did, to a ticker-tape parade and only a mild rebuke for his indiscretion.
In daily life, Douglas Corrigan was a skilled mechanic. He was among the builders of Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis that crossed the Atlantic 11 years before. He continued to fly after his journey, working for the Air Transport Command and testing bombers during World War II. But for his famous accomplishment, Corrigan has been celebrated in popular culture, acquiring the nickname “wrong way” and humored by Gilligan’s Island, James Thurber, and The Three Stooges, among others.