Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1070:
WRONG-WAY CORRIGAN

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1070.

Today, a pilot adds an expression to the English language. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

As a child, I listened to stories on the radio. I loved radio stories. One program was Hop Harrigan. It began with a voice: "This is CX4 to control tower, CX4 to control tower. Hop Harrigan, Americaís Ace of the Airways, coming in!" VaarrooOOOOM!

That show echoed the name of a real-life hero -- Wrong-Way Corrigan. Corrigan made his name in 1938, and I listened to Hop Harrigan in the years right after that. Now the Dec. 14th, 1995, New York Times announces Douglas Corrigan's death at 88.

Corrigan was the last of the early glory-seeking fliers. He flew a single-engine 1929 Curtiss-Robin heíd bought second hand for $310. No mean mechanic, heíd rebuilt the airplane and modified it for long-distance flight. Like Corrigan, it was a hold-over from earlier days.

By now, Lindbergh's flight was eleven years old. Others had also flown the Atlantic, but it was still not a trick you'd try in any regular factory-ready airplane.

Corrigan flew non-stop from California to New York in 1938. He'd filed plans for a transatlantic flight and was denied by aviation authorities. The piece of junk he was flying had no business challenging the Atlantic! So he gave up and filed a plan for a non-stop return to California.

He took off at dawn. A few puzzled onlookers watched him do a 180-degree turn and vanish into a cloudbank. Twenty-eight hours later, he stepped out of his plane in Dublin, Ireland, saying, "Just got in from New York. Where am I?"

The authorities suspended his license while Corrigan stuck to his story: He'd got turned around -- read his compass backward He'd meant to fly to California. The only people who were fooled by that wanted to be fooled. After all, he was the perfect anti-hero -- the little guy in his home-made airplane.

By the time the ship carrying Corrigan and his crated plane got back to New York, the suspension had been lifted. The city gave him a bigger parade than itíd given Lindbergh.

The next year saw the first commercial transatlantic airline. The year after that saw four-engine bombers being ferried off to war in Europe. Corrigan became a test pilot. For a few years I listened to Hop Harrigan. Then he too was overtaken by war.

When Corrigan was 81, his old Curtiss-Robin came out of mothballs and went on display at an airshow. Corrigan, who'd grown reclusive, was suddenly so enthusiastic they put a guard on the plane, lest he try to take off one more time.

Now he's dead, but the expression, "Wrong-way Corrigan!" will be around long after we've forgotten his wonderful off-the-wall story.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Thomas, R. McG., Jr., Douglas Corrigan, 88, Dies; Wrong-Way Trip Was the Right Way to Celebrity as an Aviator. The New York Times OBITUARIES, Thursday, December 14, 1995, p. C19.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

Previous Episode | Search Episodes | Index | Home | Next Episode