Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan was either the one of the worst navigators of his day, or one of the best. On a foggy summer night in 1938 he took off alone in his Curtis Robin OX-5 from New York City for a flight to California. He had years of experience as a pilot, and he had been improving his plane for the last half a decade to the point where it could handle flying this sort of distance. But when he landed, he discovered he was in Ireland! He had crossed the Atlantic!
The authorities were displeased; Corrigan’s plane was not rated for extended operations over water, and they wanted to know how he had gotten so far off course. Corrigan insisted that in the dark, he couldn’t tell that he’d been following the wrong end of the compass needle. By the time the sun had come up, it was too late for him to turn back. Incredulous, they continued to press him. Corrigan had been lobbying for years to make exactly this transatlantic flight, and had been repeatedly turned down. And so no one believed what he said about the compass. Finally Corrigan folded his arms and said, “Well, that’s my story!” They sent him home on a steamer ship.
In those days, a transatlantic flight was still a big deal. Charles Lindbergh had been the first to do it solo, in 1927. His aircraft was the Spirit of St. Louis, a custom-built Ryan monoplane equipped with enough instruments to allow him to navigate out of sight of land. (As coincidence would have it, Corrigan was the man who had installed those instruments.) Lindbergh used dead reckoning, a technique in which the pilot uses his airspeed indicator and a clock to determine how much distance he has covered. Making corrections for winds and keeping track of direction with a compass, dead reckoning allows a pilot to navigate “blind” with startling accuracy.
Lindbergh won the Orteig Prize for his flight, beating out a number of other competitors who also sought to be the first to cross the Atlantic, non-stop, by airplane. One of those other competitors was famed Arctic explorer Richard E. Byrd. Byrd was a naval aviator who had already experimented with methods of aerial navigation away from land. He used instruments such as drift indicators and bubble sextants, and the first airplane to successfully cross the Atlantic under its own power (making stops in Newfoundland and the Azores), was a U. S. Navy flying boat (the NC4) using instruments Byrd had invented.
Shortly before his attempt for the Orteig Prize, Byrd became famous as the first person to fly over the North Pole. His aircraft for his arctic expedition was a Fokker Trimotor, and his pilot was long-time friend and fellow Naval officer, Floyd Bennett. This was in 1926, and the two won the Congressional Medal of Honor for their feat.
Navigation of the arctic came with its own challenges. Bennett and Byrd could not make use of a magnetic compass; this close to the magnetic North Pole, it no longer gave useful information about the geographic North Pole. Instead, Byrd used a sun compass, which essentially works as a sundial in reverse. They flew over the spot that they believed was the pole and took numerous sextant measurements to confirm their location, though many have subsequently questioned the accuracy of their navigation.
Whether accurate or not, this arctic flight made them very famous, and they set out next for their attempt on the Orteig Prize. Hotelier Raymond Orteig was offering $25,000 to the first person or team to fly an airplane non-stop across the Atlantic. Disaster struck for Bennett and Boyd when, during a practice take-off, their aircraft did a ground loop and flipped over. This damaged the airplane and severely injured Bennett. In fact, he was still recovering a year later when he participated in a rescue operation in Quebec. He contracted pneumonia and died, leaving Byrd short a great pilot and a great friend. And in the meantime, Lindbergh went on to win the prize.
Byrd returned to arctic exploration, this time heading south. When he launched the first of a series of major expeditions to Antarctica the next year, he named one of his expedition planes the Floyd Bennett. On November 29, 1929, the Floyd Bennett became the first aircraft to fly over the South Pole. (This time for sure– there has been no dispute over Byrd’s Antarctic navigation.)
In September of that same year, instrument flight made a major breakthrough when Jimmy Doolittle, using his newly invented artificial horizon and his directional gyroscope, piloted a plane solely by reference to instruments. His aircraft was a Consolidated NY-2, a two-seater biplane. With a safety pilot in the front, Doolittle flew the entire flight, including take off and landing, from underneath a hood in the back. Proving that a pilot no longer needed to be able to see out the cockpit, Doolittle solved the navigational problems that came with flying at night, or over water, or even over vast arctic wastes.
Doolittle had a long and illustrious career with the U. S. Army Air Force, racking up numerous major achievements both before and after his instrument flight. He flew the world’s first transcontinental flight (Florida to California in 21 hours, with one stop for fuel), and led a daring air raid on Tokyo during World War Two. The Tokyo raid was probably his most famous accomplishment, but his inventions of the artificial horizon and of the directional gyroscope are probably the most influential. These two instruments will be found on almost every heavier-than-air aircraft flying today. They are part of the “standard six” instruments common to virtually all aircraft, from a little Cessna 150 to the Space Shuttle. (The other four instruments are the airspeed indicator, altimeter, turn-and-bank indicator, and vertical speed indicator.)
The year 1930 was relatively quiet for Doolittle; he spent his time advising the Army on the modernization of an airfield in Brooklyn. Floyd Bennett Field, named after Byrd’s pilot, was officially opened on May 23, 1931. Though closed now, Bennett Field saw more than its share of interesting activity in its day. In July of 1938, Howard Hughes used it as the terminal for his 91-hour round-the-world flight. And it was barely a week later, from this same field, that “Wrong Way” Corrigan himself took off on his infamous flight.
And that’s my story.