In the history of American aviation, the name Corrigan enjoys a special resonance. Two trailblazers of that authentically Irish clan – one male, one female – have secured a special place in the pantheon of those whose daring took the world by storm when flying was yet in its infancy.
Achill-born Nancy Corrigan was every bit as singleminded and purposeful as her swashbuckling namesake, Donald ‘Wrong Way’ Corrigan, both of whom are remembered to this day for their contribution to flying and, more tellingly, for their courage and determination.
Nancy Corrigan, from Owenduff, grew up in poor circumstances after her father, John, had been killed in an accident on the Great Western Railway. Her mother, Maggie, left to raise four young daughters, knew that there would be little future for any of her children in Ireland. And so, in 1929, Nancy, aged 17, took the journey to the New World. She followed in the footsteps of so many Achill emigrants and headed for Cleveland.
It was there that she revealed a burning ambition to become a pilot, enthused perhaps by the achievements of Amelia Earhart, who became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1932. Flying lessons were costly, however, and her work as a nursemaid in Cleveland would hardly meet the expense. So the stunningly attractive Nancy moved to New York, where she joined the prestigious Robert Power modelling school, earning enough money to secure her pilot’s licence.
With war looming, Nancy Corrigan was recruited by the military to train both airforce and civilian male pilots at Spartan College in Tulsa. This was a major achievement, given the discrimination against and outright hostility toward female pilots that was exhibited by what was then an all-male preserve. So successful was she as a trainer that she went on to head the aviation department of Kansas University.
One of her major milestones was marked in 1948, when, at the Cleveland Air Show, she took part in the famed Kendal Trophy air race. It had required substantial investment to purchase her own AT6 twin engine aircraft for the race, but the Achill community in Cleveland – mostly made up of Corrigans in the medical and legal professions – rallied around her.
Meanwhile, her aviator namesake, Donald Corrigan, was equally breaking moulds and winning his way into the affections of the American public. A skilled aircraft mechanic, Corrigan took off on a summer day in 1938 to fly solo from California to New York. The filed flight plan was that he would return the following day from Bennet Field in Brooklyn back to his starting point on Long Beach.
However, as he took to the air over New York, his plane turned east, not west, en route out over the Atlantic. Corrigan later claimed – unconvincingly to many who knew him – that heavy cloud had caused him to misread his compass, and that the navigational error had sent him off in the wrong direction.
Twenty-eight hours later, his rickety, ramshackle plane – a flying crate, it had been called – touched down in Ireland at Baldonnel airfield. The flight made world headlines, guaranteeing ‘Wrong Way’ Corrigan his place in aviation history – and the lead role in the follow-up movie, The Flying Irishman.
US authorities suspended his pilot’s license for 14 days by way of punishment for rule breaking, but it hardly mattered. He and his plane arrived home to New York on the steamship, Manhattan, on the last day of his suspension. And a million people turned out to give an ecstatic welcome to his cavalcade as he rode down Fifth Avenue.