Wop May

From Academic Kids

Wilfrid Reid "Wop" May (April 20, 1896June 21, 1952) was a pioneering aviator who basically invented the concept of a bush pilot while working the Canadian west.

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Wop May

May was born in Carberry, Manitoba, son of a carriage maker. His family moved to Edmonton in 1902, and while on the way they stayed with family and friends, and his 2 year old cousin gave him his nickname "Wop".

After growing up in Edmonton, May joined the Army in February 1916 during World War I. He rose through the enlisted ranks to Sergeant, and spend most of 1916 as a gunnery instructor. In 1917 his battalion was shipped to England, where he and his friend Ray Ross applied to join the Royal Flying Corps. His first flight resulted in the destruction of both his own and another aircraft, but nevertheless the RFC accepted his applications and May resigned from the Army. After initial training in London in October, he was moved to a fighter training squadron and graduated in February 1918.

On April 9th May was transferred to 209 Squadron of what had just become the Royal Air Force, 209 formerly being a unit of the Royal Naval Air Service until April 1st when the RAF was created. The 209th was commanded by another Canadian, former school friend Roy Brown, who held an envious record as a commander, having never lost a pilot under his command. May spent most of April getting used to his Sopwith Camel, but on the 20th was in combat which a German Fokker Triplane who crashed of his own accord during their brief fight.

The next day the 209th was again on patrol with similar instructions as before -- May was to stay out of the fights and simply keep an eye out. Around 10AM the squadron encountered a group of Triplanes and attacked them, while May flew above the flight and circled. He spotted another plane doing the same thing and decided to attack, chasing this aircraft right into the middle of the fight. His guns soon jammed and he dove out of combat. Unknown to anyone at the time, May's target was Wolfram von Richthofen, cousin of Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron. Like May, Wolfram was also new to flying, and had also been told to simply sit it out above the fight and watch.

Manfred, seeing his cousin in trouble, watched May dive out of the fight and started to chase him. This was generally his way, looking for aircraft in trouble and attacking them. However he was also careful to never chase aircraft over enemy lines, something he had avoided in years of combat. There is speculation that his recovery from battle fatigue was not complete, or that he had simply become lost as the entire dogfight had been blown eastward over the allied lines. Watching von Richthofen chasing May, Roy Brown decided to give chase as well, and soon the three planes were descending to rooftop height just west of no man's land. Richthofen eventually broke off his chase, but it appears he may have been confused as to where he was, because when he "turned for home" he flew over some of the most heavily defended portions of the Somme. Although the credit for shooting down Richthofen was never officially granted, Brown and Australian gunners on the ground both had good claim.

May continued flying with the 209th until the end of the war, and eventually claimed 13 aircraft and 4 probables. He was awarded with the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1918.

After returning to Edmonton at the end of the war, May and his brother rented a Curtiss JN-4 Jenny and started May Aeroplanes Ltd., opening the first "air harbour" (or aeroport) in Canada just north of town. They appeared at various functions during 1919, and would now be considered to be one of the first barnstorming companies in the world. In September May Aeroplanes was hired by the RCMP during their manhunt for John Larsen, wanted on two counts of murder and a break-in. May flew Detective James Campbell to the small town of Edson, and Larsen was caught soon thereafter. They were soon joined by George Gorman to become May-Gorman Airplanes Ltd. and took delivery of another Jenny (built by Standard Aircraft though) in which George delivered theEdmonton Journal newspaper to Wetaskiwin, 45 miles south of Edmonton.

In 1924 the business failed, and May married Violet "Vi" Bode in November. He decided to get a "real" job, joining National Cash Register in Dayton, Ohio where he went for training. While working on a lathe he was hit in the eye by a shard of steel, and from then until 1938 he was slowly going blind. Convinced that flying really was his calling, he formed the Edmonton and North Alberta Flying Club in 1927, and became a flight instructor.

In December 1928 Bert Logan was posted to Little Red River, Alberta, by his employer, the Hudson's Bay Company. On arrival he was unpacking when he suddenly got very ill. His wife, a nurse, realized he had diphtheria, and a desperate effort started to get innoculations to the town before anyone else was seriously infected. Simply getting the word out that help was needed was an adventure in its own, at the time there were no roads in the north, and the nearest telegraph station was miles away over a frozen landscape. The message eventually reached Edmonton, and on January 1st May was asked if he could deliver the medicine. He left with another flying club member, Vic Horner, the next day around noon, and landed on a lake for the night just before 4PM when it was becoming dark. They refueled on the Peace River and continued their flight, arriving in Fort Vermilion at 3PM. A group had just arrived from Little Red River and the drugs were quickly distributed. They had to stop in Peace River on the return flight due to engine damage from the low quality fuels, and didn't arrive back in Edmonton until the 7th. By this point his flight had become known across Canada as "the race against death", and he and the mayor arrived to find a media circus waiting for them in town.

In early 1932 May was involved in another manhunt, this time for Albert Johnson, soon known as the Mad Trapper. While serving a search warrant for illegal trapping on the Rat River, Constable King of the RCMP was shot by Johnson, sparking off an long chase that became front-page news across the continent. May was again hired to see if he could find Johnson, who had seemingly disappeared. On February 13th May solved the mystery when he noted a set of footprints leading off from a caribou on the middle of the river. Johnson had been following their tracks to hide his own, but had to strike off the path to set up camp at night. Following the trail over the next few days the RCMP rounded a bend on the river on the 17th to find Johnson in the middle of the trail again, unable to dodge for the bank without his snowshoes on. A firefight broke out during which one of the RCMP officers was seriously wounded and Johnson killed. May arrived just after the action ended, and landed beside the injured officer and flew him 125 miles to a doctor, being credited with saving his life.

With the start of World War II, it was decided that Canada would become the major place of training for pilots in the RAF joining from countries in the British Commonwealth. The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan set up airbases across Canada, and May became the commander of the No.2 Air Observer School in Edmonton, as well as supervisor of all the western schools.

While this was going on the United States was also ferrying huge numbers of aircraft to the Soviet Union, flying through Edmonton on their way. A number of these crashed due to mechanical problems, in which case there was no way for an injured pilot to get out of the "back country" when this happened. The idea came up that a team of parachute jumpers should be formed that could be dropped in on the crash sites to stabilize the injuries and start moving the pilots out of the bush. Early efforts were comical but dangerous, but the US trained a number of jumpers at a smokejumper school in Montana, and it was not long before the Para-Rescue team was in service. Several additional Para-Rescue teams were set up during the war, and by the time the war ended the value of these teams was recognized. They were soon re-organized into their own command within the Canadian military, Search and Rescue. For his work in Search and Rescue, May was awarded the Medal of Freedom, with Bronze Palm in 1947 by the USAAF.

May was on vacation with his son in June 1952 when he suffered a serious stroke and died.

May is immortalized on a song by Stompin' Tom Connors.


  • Allan, Iris. Wop May, Bush Pilot. Toronto : Clarke, Irwin, 1966.
  • Godsell, Philip H..1889-1961. Pilots of the Purple Twilight: The Story of Canada's Early Bush Flyers. Toronto : Ryerson Press, 1955.
  • Reid, Sheila. Wings of a hero : Canadian Pioneer Flying Ace Wilfrid Wop May. St. Catharines, Ont. : Vanwell Publishing, 1997.

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