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Thursday, 11 March 2010

An Old, Bold Pilot

There's a saying among aviators and aviatrixes that there are Bold Pilots, and there are Old Pilots, but there are no Old, Bold Pilots. I quoted this maxim to an active aviatrix in her 90's, who agreed that she was not one of the Bold Pilots. Well, that was debatable. Some people thought it was pretty bold of her to still be taking to the skies at her age, and were relieved when she finally died in her sleep, instead of behind the yoke.

Well, all maxims have their exceptions, and if anyone ever qualified, Douglas Corrigan was the exception to this rule--much more so than his hero Charles Lindbergh, whose plane he helped build in San Diego before Charles flew it across the country and on across the ocean. Corrigan aspired to follow in his wake, but couldn't afford a fancy custom-built plane like Lindbergh had, now that there was no prize money at stake for success.

So he built his own plane out of, for want of a better term, scrap. That's the opinion the government had, and they refused to give him permission to make the flight. All his plane could get clearance for was flight over ground--so he proceeded to fly it from San Diego to New York. Time was running out as his plane limped from one airfield to another, and he reached New York too late in the summer a for safe flight over the North Atlantic. So maybe Corrigan wasn't such a bold pilot after all: he turned around and flew all the way back. Being a summer soldier when it came to transatlantic flight, he named his aircraft Sunshine.

Next year, Corrigan tried again. But this time the Bureau of Air Commerce refused to renew certification on his flying junk heap, so he applied for experimental certification instead. He got it, but only for flight to New York--and, if the aircraft was still flying, another flight back.

Sunshine made the flight in record time--only 27 hours coast to coast. He knew if he could keep it aloft for one more leg, he'd make it to Ireland. But as he approached New York, he was nearly overcome by gasoline fumes from a leaking auxiliary fuel tank behind the engine.

There wasn't time to fix the leak if he was to make it to Ireland in good weather, so Douglas Corrigan entered full Bold Pilot Mode and took off with gasoline trickling out the leak and onto the floor of Sunshine's cockpit.

But he didn't take off toward the west, as stipulated by the limitations on his certification. Somehow his compass didn't seem to be working right, and with no other instruments by which to navigate, "Wrong-Way Corrigan" soon found himself over the ocean. He later professed to have been surprised that it took a whole 28 hours for land to appear under his wing once again; he claimed he'd been distracted by the fuel leak, which he routed through a hole he punched in the cockpit floor on the opposite side of the plane from its hot exhaust pipe.

Sunshine landed safely in Ireland, but it never flew again. There was no prize for it but his own life, but "Wrong-Way Corrigan" was the first pilot to fly an unairworthy plane across the Atlantic--and probably the last. And he did it alone; not that he could have found anyone so foolish--or should we say bold--to join him. Irish officials took 600 words to list the regulations broken by his flight in a telegram back to New York. As punishment, his pilot's license was suspended; the suspension, however, ran out on his (and the disassembled Sunshine's) ship ride back to New York, where he was treated to a bigger ticker-tape parade than had been Lindbergh, eleven years earlier.

He got another chance to sit behind the yoke of Sunshine fifty years later, when his plane was reassembled for the golden anniversary of his flight. Guards were posted this time, though, to make sure he didn't yield to the temptation of repeating his famous flight.

Douglas Corrigan died in peace at the age of eighty-eight--an Old, Bold, Pilot. But he steadfastly held out to the end that his arrival in Irish skies was purely due to faulty navigation. Without any hard evidence to the contrary, he was never convicted otherwise.

Now if you ever hear the term "Wrong-Way Corrigan," you'll know the story behind the term. And remember that every maxim has its exceptions.

Even this one.

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