In October of 1925, when Douglas Corrigan was seventeen years old, he managed to save $2.50 for a ride on a Curtiss biplane that treated the public to short rides. Exactly one week later, he started taking flying lessons. He hung out at the airfield watching, learning from the mechanics and in March he made his first solo flight.
He dropped out of high school and went to work as an airplane mechanic, eventually getting hired by Ryan Aeronautical to work in the San Diego factory. It was there he got to work on the The Spirit of St. Louis and meet his hero, Charles Lindbergh. It was Doug Corrigan that pulled the chocks from the wheels when Lindbergh took off from San Diego, on his way to New York and then across the Atlantic.
For the next eight years, Corrigan worked as a mechanic, instructor and did a lot of barnstorming on the East Coast. He spent $310 for a used 1929 Curtiss Robin monoplane in 1933 and flew it home to California, where he worked on it in his spare time to make it ready for a transatlantic flight.
When he thought the Robin was ready, he applied for a transatlantic flight license, but was turned down. The Robin was too unstable, he was told. A year later, he was turned down again
In 1938, he applied for a transcontinental license and that was granted. He flew back to Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn on July 9, 1938. He filed a flight plan for a return to California on July 17, but at first light, as he took off, he turned east instead of west.
He arrived at Baldonnel Aerodrome in Ireland on July 18 after a 28-hour flight. The Robin had accomplished the feat on 320 gallons of fuel and 16 gallons of oil. The pilot had been fueled by two chocolate bars, two boxes of fig cookies and a liter of water.
One of the fuel tanks had sprung a leak, so Corrigan punched a hole in the floor to let the gasoline drain away. A journalist described the Robin as built “practically as a boy would build a scooter out of a soapbox and a pair of old roller skates.” The nose was covered in a patchwork of pieces Corrigan had soldered together himself and the door to the cockpit was literally held together with baling wire.
But, like Lindy, he had made it.
Corrigan and the Robin were sent home by ship. He arrived to a hero’s welcome, with a ticker tape parade in New York and another in Chicago. He also received a 600-word telegram from the authorities listing the regulations he had violated, though in the end, his license was suspended for only two weeks.
Because he had broken so many rules, he never admitted that his turn to the east was deliberate. He claimed for the rest of his life that the flight was in error, due to heavy cloud cover and wrong compass readings. And so the New York Post headline the day of his parade down Broadway gave him his nickname for the ages: