Listen to this podcast episode on Canadian History Ehx
In the history of aviation, there have been several famous Canadians, all the way up to Chris Hadfield, but it is likely none were as famous, respected or as well-known in their time as Wilfred Reid May, better known as Wop May.
Born in Carberry, Manitoba on March 20, 1896, he would move to Edmonton at the age of six where the family stayed with family and friends. It was there that his two-year-old cousin, Mary, began to call him Woppie as she could not pronounce Wilfred. This evolved into his nickname of Wop.
In 1916, May joined the Canadian Army and quickly rose through ranks to become a sergeant and a gunnery instructor by the end of the year. The next year, he was shipped to England with the 202nd battalion where he applied to join the Royal Flying Corps.
Things did not get off to a great start, with his first flight ending in the accidental destruction of his own aircraft and another. Despite this, he was accepted into the flying corps. May went through training in October of 1917 and graduated in February of 1918.
By April 9, he was promoted to lieutenant and was flying with the Royal Air Force. The commander of his new squadron, the No. 209 Squadron, was Roy Brown, his former school friend. May began to fly with a Sopwith Camel plane and then was sent to France.
His first aerial combat came on April 20, when he fought a Fokker Triplanes, which crashed on its own accord.
The following day, April 21, the first part of the legend of Wop May would begin.
The 209 Squadron was on patrol and May was ordered by Brown to stay out of fights and just keep an eye out, since he was still new to flying. At 10 a.m., the squadron began attacking a group of German Triplanes. May circled above and when he saw another plane, a German one, doing the same, he decided to initiate an attack. May began firing at the plane, which was being flown by a young man who had also been given orders to sit out of the fight and just watch. That man’s name was Wolfram von Richthofen, the cousin of Manfred von Richthofen, also known as The Red Baron.
The Red Baron, seeing his cousin attacked, flew to his rescue and began to fire at May, thereby saving the life of his cousin. Years later, May would speak on the incident and being fired upon by the greatest World War One ace of them all.
“The first thing I knew, I was being fired on from the rear…all I could do was to try and dodge my attacker. I noticed it was a red tri-plane and if I realized it was Richthofen, I would have probably passed out on the spot.I kept on dodging and spinning, I imagine from 12,000 feet until I ran out of sky and had to hedge hop over the ground. Richthofen was firing at me continually, and the only thing that saved me was my poor flying. I didn’t know what I was doing myself and I do not suppose that Richthofen could figure out what I was going to do.”
Brown noticed the Baron chasing after May and he dove steeply to intervene and then had to climb steeply to avoid hitting the ground. Richthofen avoided the attack and then resumed pursuing May. While in the fight with May, Richthofen was hit by a single .303 bullet, which damaged his heart and lungs that he died almost instantly but was able to last just long enough to make a rough landing in a field. It is not known who actually killed the Red Baron. While some believe that it was Brown, others think it may have been May, while there is also evidence to say it was a person on the ground, probably Cedric Popkin, who shot The Red Baron.
No matter who shot and killed The Red Baron, May was an integral part of that battle and his legend was being cemented from this point on.
Over the remainder of the war, May would shoot down 13 enemy aircraft that were confirmed and five that are likely. He would reach the rank of captain and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. On Dec. 3, 1918, following his medal awarding, the London Gazette stated,
“This officer has carried out numerous offensive and low-bombing patrols, proving himself on all occasions a bold and daring pilot. His keenness and disregard of personal danger is worthy of the highest praise.”
On May 8, 1919, he relinquished his RAF commission and entered into civilian life. On July 7, 1919, he was issued a civilian pilot licence.
Upon his return to Canada, May and his brother rented a Curtiss JN-r and started May Airplanes Ltd, thereby opening Canada’s first aeroport in a rented pasture known as May Field, which today is the Mayfield Neighbourhood of Edmonton.
The company would appear at various functions over the next year, becoming one of the first barnstorming companies in the world.
In September of 1919, May’s company was hired by the Edmonton Police Chief to take part in the manhunt for John Larson, who had killed a police officer and one other individual. May flew James Campbell, an Edmonton Police Detective to Edson, about two hours west of Edmonton. Since the community had no airport, May landed on the street. Larson was soon caught. This is believed to be the first time an aircraft was used in a manhunt and for May, it would not be the last.
Not long after the manhunt, George Gorman joined the company and it became May-Gorman Airplanes Ltd.
In early 1921, the company was hired by Imperial Oil to fly two Junkers aircraft, both equipped with skis from New York to Edmonton. These two planes were to be used in the Northwest Territories to service proposed oil developments along the Mackenzie River at an area that would one day be known as Norman Wells. The two planes were flown into the Northwest Territories and into the subarctic, which was a first for any plane, proving that aircraft could operate in freezing temperatures.
In 1922, his brother died suddenly, which would have a deep impact on May, who would begin to lose his enthusiasm for flying.
In 1924, May married Violet Bode and decided to work for National Cash Register in Dayton, Ohio, giving up his life in the sky. While working on a lathe, he took a shard of steel in the eye and slowly went blind in that eye over the next 15 years.
The life on the ground did not last and May soon realized his calling was to be in the sky. In 1927, He came back to Edmonton and formed the Edmonton and North Alberta Flying Club, becoming a flight instructor.
In December of 1928, the second part of May’s legend would begin with the Race Against Death. Now, I won’t go into too much detail on this part because I released an episode a few weeks ago about the Race Against Death.
Essentially, with fears of a dypyheria outbreak in the remote northern Alberta community of Little Red River and Fort Vermilion, a relay of individuals sent a telegraph to Edmonton requesting immediate serums to be sent. It quickly fell on Wop May, who was in town at the time, to take the flight with Vic Horner, a fellow member of his flight club.
On Jan. 2, May left in an Avro Avian and landed at McLennan for the night just before 4 p.m. After refuelling in Peace River, the men continued their flight to Fort Vermilion, where they landed at 3p .m. They quickly handed over the serum and flew back to Peace River, where they remained until Jan. 7 to repair engine damage. By the time they reached Edmonton, a media circus had erupted as news spread about the Race Against Death. When they landed in Edmonton, they were mobbed by thousands of people who had come out to celebrate them.
With the immense positive press for May and Horner, May was able to start a new company, Commercial Airways, which would provide air service to northern Canada. The company was also able to secure a government contract for air mail to the Northwest Territories.
In 1929, he would be awarded the Trans-Canada McPhee Trophy, which is awarded by the Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute to a Canadian citizen who has made an outstanding, contemporary achievement in aerospace operations. That same year, he flew the first airmail in the Canadian Arctic.
In 1932, the third legendary exploit of May happened. Albert Johnson, also known as The Mad Trapper, had shot and wounded an RCMP officer. This started a long chase that became front page news. Johnson would then go on to kill Constable Edger Millen, and May was hired to help find Johnson who had disappeared after killing the officer.
On Feb. 13, May saw footprints from the air, leading off from caribou tracks in the middle of the river. It was discovered that Johnson had been following caribou tracks to hide his own but had to venture off that trail when night came. The next few days, the RCMP followed the trail and found Johnson on Feb. 17. A firefight broke out and Johnson was killed, and one RCMP officer was injured. May flew down and landed next to the officer, put him in his plane and flew 201 kilometres to a doctor. This action saved the life of the officer.
Years later, May would state, “I was up overhead when RCMP Inspector Alex Eames was coming round the bend of the river. Johnson tried to run up the bank to get out of his way. He didn’t have his snowshoes on, and he couldn’t make it, so he came back into the centre of the river, dug himself into the snow and the fight started. We were up on top, circling, watching the fight and taking pictures of it.”
In 1935, May would become an Officer of the Order of the British Empire with the rank of Officer in the Civil Division.
By the time the Second World War came along, Canada not only sent troops but was instrumental in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, which set up airfields across the country to train pilots. At No. 2 Air Observer School in Edmonton, he was the commander, and also the supervisor of all western schools.
Also during the Second World War, the United States was sending aircraft to the Soviet Union, which involved many planes going through Edmonton. With several planes crashing because of mechanical problems, and with no way of getting the injured pilot out of the isolated areas of Canada, it was decided that parachute jumpers would be created so they could drop into sites, stabilize pilots and move them out of the bush. May became heavily involved in this and the para-rescue teams proved to be invaluable throughout the war.
Thanks to his work with the program, May was awarded the Medal of Freedom with Bronze Palm in 1947 by the United States Air Force.
May would later say, “It was hard to get at them and they could not land, that was what gave us the idea for the rescue squad. A fellow said he had done all kinds of parachute jumps. I wanted to see him put on a demonstration. He and four besides himself jumped, not one of them had jumped before. We kicked them out over the airport. One guy landed on the wing of an aeroplane and went right through. The other guy landed on the American Officers’ Mess and another guy landed flat footed on the runway. It was not very good. We tried it again. The next guy came down wrong, one landed on his fanny on a pile of rock, he bounced about six feet. I got nervous and thought I would not like to see these fellows jump in the bush. We talked to the Americans. There was a very fine fellow by the name of Colonel Nightingale. He arranged that we sent some people to Missoula, Montana where they trained smoke jumpers. We got these people started and we then got them organized and trained more people and used them until the end of the war. The Air Force thought so much of them they took over our complete unit and operated it as the Search and Rescue unit.”
Following the war, he was employed by Canadian Pacific Railways as the Director of Northern Development, followed by becoming the manager of the company’s repair depot in Calgary.
Sadly, following the war, on June 21, 1952, May suffered a stroke while out hiking in Utah with his son Denny. He would be buried in Edmonton.
Following his death, May would be honoured extensively in the coming decades.
Today, the aircraft used by May with May Airplanes Ltd. Hangs in the lobby of the Royal Alberta Museum.
In 1974, May was declared a National Historic Person, and a plaque honouring him was installed in Edmonton in 1978. Stompin’ Tom Connors would release a song called Wop May, as would The Gumboots and John Spearn. He was also inducted into Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame.
In 2004, the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity located a rock on the south slope of Endurance Crater on Mars measuring one-metre. The rock was named wopmay in honour of May.
There also exists the Wopmay Fault Zone, which is west of Hudson Bay along the Wopmay River, where the earliest mountains in the world appeared two billion years ago. That same year, he was chosen as one of the 100 Citizens of the Century for Edmonton.
The airport in Fort Vermilion is also named Wop May Memorial Aerodrome.
One interesting thing of note is that The Hunt For The Mad Trapper would become a movie in 1981, called Death Hunt and starring Charles Bronson. In that movie, May was called Captain Tucker, who fired at everyone on the ground, including the officers, who shot back at him and caused him to crash into a mountain. Needless to say, Hollywood certainly took liberties with that movie.
Information for this piece comes from The Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, WopMay.com,