August 01, 1988 12:00 PM

Half a century has passed, and it is still not clear whether Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan really sees the error of his ways. His “accidental” flight from New York to Ireland in 1938 made aviation history, but the only one who knows for sure whether it was a superb feat or a monumental blunder is Corrigan himself. Over the years he has never quite cleared up the doubts. Returning to Dublin last week, on the 50th anniversary of his transoceanic journey, the 81-year-old aviator kept the game going. “They told me to get lost,” he says of U.S. authorities who refused his 1936 application to fly to Ireland because his plane was too decrepit, “so I did.”

On July 17,1938, Corrigan took off from Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field in a rickety Curtis Robin single-seater that he had bought for $325; he was flying home to Los Angeles, he said. More than 27 hours later, he landed safely—at Baldonnel Aerodrome, just outside Dublin, 6,000 miles off-course. Corrigan told reporters that he had misread his compass and, not noticing the Atlantic Ocean because of fog, had simply flown the wrong way. He stuck to his story, and by the time he got back to New York—by ocean liner—he was a folk hero and his nickname had become part of the language. The city that had thrown a ticker tape parade for Lindbergh—whose Spirit of St. Louis Corrigan had helped build—threw an even bigger one for Corrigan. He starred as himself in a movie called The Flying Irishman and made enough money from his fame to buy an orange grove in Santa Ana, Calif., where he still lives. Eventually, after Roy, the youngest of his three sons, died in a 1972 plane crash, the elder Corrigan gave up flying. Last spring, though, with the anniversary of his flight coming up, Corrigan felt the old juices stirring once more. On July 18, at 2:30 p.m., a half-century later almost to the minute, Corrigan once more landed at Ba donnel, this time as a passenger of Aer Lingus, his airline host. He was wearing the same leather jacket he had worn in ’38, and, just as he did then, he whipped out three $1 bills.

On hand to greet him again was Johnny Maher, 89, the engineer who hangared his plane in 1938. As they shook hands, Maher said, “I still have your maps.” He was referring to the school atlas Corrigan used for navigation during the flight and which Maher believes—because of pencil markings on one of the maps—indicates that Corrigan’s wayward trip was no accident. Corrigan, though, concedes nothing. “I had less worry than Lindbergh and those other guys,” he says blithely, “because I had no idea I was flying over water.” In fact, he landed with no passport and no flying papers. “I was in trouble,” he says, “until one of the policemen said, ‘Oh, he’s just another Irishman coming home.’ ”

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