Wrong-Way Corrigan: A Compass Unit Study

Wrong-Way Corrigan: A Compass Unit Study

On July 17, 1938, Douglas Corrigan took off from New York to fly to California. His plane was a patched-up disaster. Baling wire held the cockpit door closed and extra fuel tanks severely limited his view. The sky was cloudy and it was dark, but he took off anyway and headed east, rather to the surprise of onlookers. He later said that he was burning off some excess fuel before he headed west. After all, with all that extra fuel his plane was very heavy and laboring to take off. Unfortunately, he didn’t turn back around to the west before starting over the Atlantic, either.  He discovered that the liquid had leaked out of his main compass, rendering it useless. So, pulling out the traditional dry compass, he verified that he was going the right way. Unfortunately, he read the compass backwards, so instead of going west toward California as planned, he was actually heading east toward Europe!

Corrigan’s Transatlantic Adventure

Corrigan’s tale of his flight was less than believable. He had been trying to obtain permission to fly over the Atlantic for years on end, but had never received permission as the FAA considered the flight too dangerous, especially in the plane he was using.  Yet, he made a comment to his family about flying to Ireland (being of Irish descent) —  without the needed permission.

Ten hours after takeoff, he met up with the unpleasant sensation of cold feet. The fuel tank, which he knew was leaking before he even took off, had started leaking worse, and his feet were cold from the flooded cockpit floor. This was unpleasant enough, but considering what would happen if all that fuel leaked out onto the exhaust pipe, he deemed it prudent to punch a hole in the floor, and cranked up the engine so as to arrive at his destination quicker lest the fuel leak out before he arrive. Although he allegedly had not realized his “mistake” yet, he decided that the trouble wasn’t worth landing for. Of course, he could have landed if inclined — he didn’t know that he was flying over the ocean yet, right?

Only two hours before he landed he supposedly realized that he was over the sea and had read his compass wrong after all. Well, now he was so low on fuel and so close to land on the other side of the watery expanse, that he had better just keep going. Landing at last in Dublin, Ireland — by some coincidence the very place he had wished to take his dream trip across the Atlantic to — he stepped out and asked, “Just came from New York. Where am I?” Thanks to his “mistake” he had accidentally, on purpose, taken the transatlantic flight he had longed to, but which the authorities in America had repeatedly denied.

Despite his illegal maneuver and the fact that his story was less than plausible, Douglas Corrigan became a national hero in both Ireland and America. As punishment for not following his flight plan, nor filing the requisite paperwork, his pilot license was revoked for two weeks — the amount of time it took to send him back to America by ship. When he arrived in New York, a reception bigger than even Lindbergh’s for the same achievement was held for him — ticker-tape parade and all.  In the end however, because of the way it was made, Corrigan’s achievement was not acknowledged with those of the early aviators.

The History of the Compass

Wrong-Way Corrigan: A Compass Unit Study

But how do you read a compass the wrong way, anyway? Not very easily. The compass was first invented by the Chinese before the birth of Christ for fortune telling. It has been used in navigation for almost a millennium — the first clear use being recorded by the Chinese in A.D. 1040. The compass by all appearances spread to Europe and then back again to the Middle East, which puzzles scholars since Middle Eastern countries are obviously much closer to China than Europe is.

How a Compass Works

A compass works simply. The earth produces a magnetic field. By putting a lightweight, magnetized needle on a pin, a compass is formed. The needle will always point toward one of the poles, depending on how it is magnetized. In a compass, the clearly marked North needle will, obviously, point north. On the compass box, north, south, east, and west, as well as degrees to 360 (a complete circle) are clearly marked. By turning the compass box, the North marking will align with the needle and you will receive a very clear idea of the direction you are facing.

Over long distances a compass isn’t as accurate as you might think; a little math is needed to calculate where exactly you need to go. This is due to the fact that true north is different than the magnetic north. In other words, the compass is not pointing directly at the north pole. Where exactly it is pointing tends to drift annually, and special maps are used to solve this difficulty. However, for the majority of uses, a compass is accurate enough — and certainly accurate enough that it would have guided Douglas Corrigan to the west instead of the east had he only read his compass correctly!

Further Investigation

Douglas Corrigan
Background info from the National Park Service.

The Adventures of Wrong-Way Corrigan
Longer article that originally appeared in Aviation History magazine.

Wrong-Way Corrigan
Transcript and audio of Engines of Our Ingenuity show from the University of Houston’s College of Engineering.

A History of the Magnetic Compass
Background from the IEEE.


Compass Activity Page
From JanBrett.com.

How Does a Compass Work?
Listen to this audio from USGS CoreFacts.

Finding Your Way with a Map and Compass
Download from the USGS explains how.

How to Use a Compass
Great activities covering how to use a compass alone and with a map, understanding magnetic declination, and several other activities including navigating in fog — if only Corrigan would have had such advice!

Map and Compass Activities
4-page download from the Girl Scouts with lots of active game ideas.

Cardinal Directions Resources & Mapmaker Kit {Free}

Cardinal Directions Resources & Mapmaker Kit {Free}
Helps for teaching children cardinal directions.

Compass Worksheet
Exploring the compass rose.

Unit Studies & Lesson Plans

The Art of Teaching Map and Compass
Everything you need to know and then some. Great guide!

Finding Directions Using a Compass
Lesson plan with four activities that include making a compass and orienteering.

Magnets and Compass Unit
Step-by-step lessons for younger students investigating the properties of magnets and building a compass from the University of Illinois.

Orienteering Merit Badge Workbook
10-page download from the Boy Scouts.

Orienteering Lesson Plans for High School and Middle School
Great 34-page download covering the history of orienteering, map reading, using a compass, navigating, and orienteering field trips for older students.

Treasure Map
Simple lesson plan from Crayola where students make a treasure map featuring a compass rose.

Printables & Notebooking Pages

Compass and Directions
16-point compass rose printable from Ordnance Survey.

Compass Rose
Blank printout to label and color from Enchanted Learning.

“Wrong Way” Corrigan and the Compass Notebooking Pages
Simple pages for copywork, narrations, or wrapping up.