Irish-American Heritage Month was first proclaimed in 1991 by President George H.W. Bush—whose Irish ancestors hailed from County Wexford and who served as a U.S. Navy pilot in World War II—to honor the contributions of Irish-Americans and to give people an excuse to drink pints o’ Guinness. American cities with large ethnic Irish populations, such as Boston, Chicago, and New York City, take St. Patrick’s Day seriously and hold large celebrations. The excuse to throw a party has spread around the world, to countries such as Brazil, Russia, and Japan, and it’s even celebrated aboard the International Space Station. It’s often forgotten that the holiday is meant to commemorate the fifth-century British Christian missionary who voyaged into Ireland, drove out the snakes (not off a plane), and became the first bishop of Ireland. Today, he is venerated as a patron saint of Ireland.
Pilots might prefer to celebrate the particular contributions of an Irish-American pilot, Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan (1907–1995), who took off from New York in 1938 with a flight plan for California but “accidentally” landed in Ireland.
Corrigan was born in Galveston, Texas, in 1907 and earned his pilot certificate in 1926. He worked as a mechanic for the Ryan Aeronautical Co. in San Diego and assisted in building Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis. Inspired by Lindbergh’s flight, Corrigan started to plan his own transatlantic flight to Ireland. He worked numerous jobs in aviation and in 1933 bought a 1929 Curtiss OX–5 Robin airplane and began to modify it for a lengthy, nonstop flight. Corrigan boosted the horsepower of the engine and installed additional fuel tanks. In 1935, Corrigan sought permission from the Bureau of Air Commerce to fly from New York to Ireland, which was a requirement at that time. The application was rejected because his airplane was considered unsafe for a transatlantic flight. Corrigan continued to improve and modify his aircraft, but was repeatedly refused the transatlantic permit.
In July 1938, Corrigan flew his Robin from California to New York City, where he filed a flight plan for a return to the West Coast. On July 17 he took off for “California,” but after a 28-hour flight landed at Baldonnel Aerodrome, outside Dublin. He claimed that his “wrong way” flight was caused by “navigational error” and that he’d misread his compass.
On his return to New York City, by ship, he was honored for his audacious flight with a ticker-tape parade and a two-week suspension of his pilot certificate. Corrigan quickly wrote his autobiography, That’s My Story, which was published in time for Christmas sales in 1938. He also endorsed numerous “wrong way” products, including a wristwatch that ran backward. The next year, he starred as himself in a Hollywood film, The Flying Irishman. To the end of his life, he never admitted flying to Ireland intentionally.
Some other Irish-American pilots to honor—with better navigational skills than Corrigan—include astronaut Michael Collins, who flew Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon on Apollo 11, and Jim Irwin, who didn’t get lost walking on the moon during Apollo 15.
On chilly evenings this March, pilots should celebrate Corrigan’s daring flight with a warming Irish coffee while watching The Flying Irishman. Corrigan’s book, That’s My Story, is out of print, but used copies are available on book-selling websites.
You can visit Corrigan’s airplane at the Planes of Fame Air Museum at Chino Airport in California, about 35 miles east of Los Angeles. Currently, it’s in serious need of restoration and displayed without its wings. From there, navigate to Corrigan’s final landing site at Fairhaven Memorial Park in Santa Ana, about 27 miles southeast. His grave is in block M, grave 31.