Wilfrid ‘Wop’ May – Canadian Flying Ace and Alberta Aviation Pioneer

This year, 2017, marks Canada’s sesquicentennial – 150 years since Canada became a country; there will be many celebrations across the country on July 1st and throughout the year to mark this milestone! Many people have shaped Canada into the country that we know today, and one of those people is Wilfrid “Wop” May. Enjoy and Happy Canada Day!

Captain W.R. May – Edmonton, 1919 (Courtesy Denny May).

To Wop[1] May who had grown up on the Canadian prairie, the English winter of 1917 must have seemed dreary. With the arrival of spring, he was on his way to the Western Front, and perhaps it had been before leaving England, or at a train station in France, he chanced upon a sign advertising that the Royal Flying Corps were looking for pilots. The fact that more young men were killed in air training accidents than died in combat seemed not to be a deterrent – the lure of adventure in the skies won out – he applied, was accepted and began the process of learning how to fly a plane.

A year later, on the morning of April 21, Wilfrid Reid May, now a recently graduated Lieutenant, was participating in only his second sortie in as many days. His squadron was patrolling in the northwest of France, east of the city of Amiens, when they engaged the German unit known as, The Flying Circus. Seated in the open cockpit of his Sopwith Camel, with the roar of the engine and the wind in his ears, May watched from above as the colourful reds and greens and blues and yellows of the German aircraft darted back and forth below him. The Camel, a single seater bi-plane, was equipped with two machine guns synchronized to fire between the propeller blades. A novice, his instructions were to stay high; to watch and learn, and not to shoot at anything. But when an enemy plane appeared before him[2], up high and alone like he was, May fired upon it and followed as it dove. Suddenly finding himself surrounded by enemy aircraft approaching from all sides, he madly pulled his plane into a vertical turn and opened up both machine guns hoping to hit as many targets as possible – with the subsequent result that both his guns jammed.

Wop May being pursued by the Red Baron through the French village of Vaux- sur-Somme, with the Morlancourt Ridge in the background, April 21, 1918; painting by Barry Weekley (Courtesy Denny May).

With no recourse but to escape the fray, May turned steeply towards the ground, hoping to make it back to safety behind the Allied line, when suddenly several bursts of machine gun fire caught his wings from behind. Craning his neck to glimpse his pursuer, he could see a red Fokker tri-plane, at times only thirty feet behind him. For fifteen miles, over the valley of the Somme River, the German aeroplane gave chase while Wop managed to dodge and weave, in his own words, ‘slipping and sliding,’ close to the ground, over hedges and hilltops, and almost touching the water at times, evading his pursuer. From high above, Wop’s Flight Commander and high school friend, Captain Roy Brown, seeing that Wop was in trouble, disengaged from the battle, diving steeply downwards toward the ground. As the enemy aircraft pursued May around the church steeple and through the village of Vaux-sur-Somme, Brown, coming up unseen from behind, and with the morning sun at his back, fired into the cockpit of the tri-plane, causing it to veer off. May then watched as the red aeroplane, encountering allied ground fire along the base of the Morlancourt Ridge, landed roughly in a field on top of the ridge, not far from a brick works factory.

At the time, neither May nor Brown knew the identity of the German pilot, only later learning that it had been none other than Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen. Wop later stated that, had he known the pilot’s identity at the time, he probably would have died of fright. A German national hero, The Red Baron was the most famous pilot in the world, and the most feared. With 80 air combat victories to his credit, had Brown not intervened, Wop May would have become Richthofen’s 81st. By war’s end, six months later, May had become a skilled pilot in his own right. He had been promoted to the rank of Captain and was a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross. A Flying Ace more than twice over, he had downed thirteen enemy aircraft, with another eight unconfirmed.

Left: Lieutenant W.R. ‘Wop’ May, 1917 (Courtesy Denny May); Right: Manfred Von Richthofen, The Red Baron (Wikipedia: public domain).

Many pilots returned from the Great War as heroes; other Canadians like Billy Bishop, Freddie McCall, and American Eddie Rickenbacker. To the people back home, their fame had preceded them – their aerial jousting matches represented, ‘the preservation of ideals of sportsmanship and individual combat in the context of modern warfare,’ that separated them from the men fighting on the ground.

There was little work though for a Flying Ace, so many returning pilots went on tour; engaging in flying demonstrations and performing aeronautical stunts. These ‘Barnstormers’, sporting the requisite leather cap, goggles and white aviator scarf, showcased their talents at exhibitions and fairgrounds across North America. In 1919, Wop, along with his brother Court, rented a JN-4 Curtiss Canuck bi-plane[3] at $25/month from the City of Edmonton and formed their own company called, May Aeroplanes Ltd. The Edmonton Bulletin described a May performance at the Exhibition grounds in July of 1919: he ‘Looped the loop eight times,’ nose-dived with no less than 21 complete rotations, and, “The back somersaults, several in succession, were exceedingly graceful and quite thrilling enough to gratify the crowds.” Several other pilots started up their own companies that year as well; Canadian Aircraft Co. Ltd based out of Winnipeg, Aerial Service Co. Ltd. out of Regina, and the McCall Aero Corporation based out of Calgary.

Left: Wop May in Saskatoon, 1919 (Courtesy Denny May); Right: The Edmonton Bulletin, July 5, 1920. The ad also mentions that “Locklear” would be performing, and using the May-Gorman aeroplanes. Ormer Locklear was a famous stuntman and “Wing Walker.” He would be killed in a fiery crash a month later, filming a stunt for the Fox Film Corporation in California.

By 1920, Wop and Court brought another wartime flyer, George Gorman on board, and the company became, May-Gorman Aeroplanes Ltd. (Photo Credit: Provincial Archives of Alberta A9993).

In November of 1924, Wop married accomplished equestrian and polo player, Violet Bode. If ever he was flying into Edmonton after dark, Wop would buzz the Bode home at 125th Street and 102 avenue – and Vi would drive out to May Field, on a farm north of the city along St. Albert Trail, shining the car’s headlights on the runway so he could land safely. After they were married, Wop gave up flying for a few years – commercial aviation was still in its infancy, and aircraft capabilities were limited, but by 1926 he, along with several friends, had formed a new company called Commercial Airways.

By 1929, Commercial had secured its largest contract; the first government mail service for the Mackenzie River district. Covering a distance of nearly 3000 km and servicing 13 northern communities, the first delivery would involve 125,000 letters, 125 flights, 6 pilots, and 4 airplanes. Wop would spend Christmas eve of that year in Fort Norman, a Hudson’s Bay Company outpost along the Mackenzie River lying just south of the Arctic Circle. That night, the aurora blazed across the sky, while within, the wood stove warmed the room and the men huddled close to a radio that crackled with the interference and broadcast news from the outside world. Flying in the north brought its own unique challenges, and by morning the thermometer had dropped to -50 °C. The crew had to warm the cowlings with blowtorches, and heat the oil fireside before pouring it back into the engines – then it was on to Fort Good Hope, Fort McPherson, Arctic Red River and finally Aklavik, on the Mackenzie Delta.

First Air Mail delivery to Aklavik, NT – December 27, 1929. (Courtesy Denny May).

The following year, 1930, saw Alberta’s first scheduled, all passenger service. Partnering with Rutledge Air Service out of Calgary, passengers could now leave Lethbridge at 8 am, arrive in Calgary by 9:20, and Edmonton by 11:10. In 1931, Commercial, along with a number of smaller airlines were taken over by their competitor, Western Canadian Airways of Winnipeg, under the new moniker of Canadian Airways Ltd. Many of Commercial’s pilots, including May, stayed on with the new company, and Wop May continued to work in the north, based out of Fort McMurray.[4]  This new breed of skilled aviators known as, ‘bush pilots’, were opening up Canada’s north country to geologists, prospectors, surveyors, hunters and tourists.

Throughout his career, Wop May gained fame and notoriety for a number of daring exploits. During the 1920’s and 30’s, flying was new and exciting, and newspapers covered stories about aviation on a daily basis. In early January of 1929, May and partner Gorman volunteered to deliver diphtheria vaccine to the community of Fort Vermilion, along the Peace River in northern Alberta. Travelling in an open, two-seater plane, they flew 800 miles north – braving snows and frigid temperatures –  delivering the vaccine and thereby preventing a disastrous outbreak.  On their return to Edmonton on the 6th of January, 10,000 people were on hand at May Field to welcome them back. In January of 1932, Wop May and his airplane were called in to conduct an aerial search for a mysterious trapper who had already shot two R.C.M.P. constables and eluded capture for over a month –  through deep snows, across the Mackenzie delta and over the mountains into the Yukon. Radio listeners across North America tuned in, gripped by the story. From the air, it was Wop May, and mechanic Jack Bowen, who spotted the trapper’s tracks in the snow which led the R.C.M.P. to their final confrontation and fire fight with, The Mad Trapper of Rat River.

May continued flying in the north until 1936, when he was appointed Superintendent of the Mackenzie River District for Canadian Airways, and once more was based out of Edmonton. It was the same year he lost his commercial pilot’s license after failing a medical – he was blind in one eye. In fact, he’d been secretly flying with only one good eye for his entire commercial career. A skilled mechanic, he had taken a splinter in the eye while working with a metal lathe in 1924.

With the onset of the Second World War, Wop May was tasked with the set up and management of the Air Observer School #2 in Edmonton for the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (B.C.A.T.P.).  The B.C.A.T.P. had been established with the objective of setting up 10 schools across the country for the training of allied air crews for the war overseas. In 1942, he was appointed Superintendent of all the Training schools across Canada. Over the course of the war, the B.C.A.T.P. trained over 130,000 pilots, navigators, gunners, and observers, becoming one of the country’s great successes and contributions to the war effort.

Wop & Vi May – Fort McMurray (Courtesy Denny May).

By 1949 the May family, Wop, Vi, along with son Denny and daughter Joyce, made the move to Vancouver where Wop was now working as, ‘Director of Development’ for Canadian Pacific Airways (CPA) [5], negotiating international contracts for new routes to Japan, Singapore, New Zealand and Australia. It was a hectic and busy time as CPA was now competing with Trans Canada Airlines, the federally operated airline that would later become Air Canada. After several years in Vancouver, the May’s made the move back to Alberta, with Wop establishing and managing an airline repair depot for CPA out of Calgary.

“…you go on up and I’ll meet you back at the car.”  It was June 21, 1952, Wop May was hiking in the Wasatch Mountains south of Salt Lake City, on a much deserved road trip with his son. He never made it back down. The flying ace, barnstormer, bush pilot, and commercial aviation pioneer suffered a heart attack on the trail; he was 57.

Written By: Mike Donnelly (Independent Historian)

[1]  As a boy, a young cousin pronounced his name ‘Woppie,’ instead of, ‘Wilfred,’ and the name stuck.

[2] Flying his first mission – Lt.  Wolfram Von Richthofen, cousin of the infamous Red Baron, would go on to serve as a German Field Marshall in WWII.

[3] Fully restored, the JN-4 Canuck is on display at the Reynolds Alberta Museum in Wetaskiwin, AB.

[4] The May’s home from the 1930’s stands today in Fort McMurray’s Heritage Park.

[5] In 1942 CP Rail amalgamated a number of smaller airlines, including Canadian Airways, to form Canadian Pacific Airways (CPA).

Sources:

CBC Archives. Wop May speaking to a group of Boy Scouts 1952: http://www.cbc.ca/archives/entry/wilfrid-wop-may-wwi-flying-ace-to-celebrated-bush-pilot

Boer, Peter. 2004. Bush Pilots – Canada’s Wilderness Daredevils. Folklore Publishing.

Edmonton Bulletin. July 10, 1919.

Edmonton Bulletin. July 5, 1920.

Edmonton Journal. June 23,  1952.

Ferguson, William Paul. 1979. The Snowbird Decades – Western Canada’s Pioneer Aviation Companies. Butterworth & Co., Vancouver.

Retroactive: Blogging Alberta’s Historic Places; Hoar, Erin.  Hangar 14 and The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. https://albertashistoricplaces.wordpress.com/2016/02/10/hangar-14-and-the-british-commonwealth-air-training-plan/

May, Denny. 2011. More Stories about Wop May. Maycroft, Edmonton.

May, Denny. Interview. 2017.

Pigott, Peter. 1997. Flying Colours – A History of Commercial Aviation in Canada. Douglas & McIntyre, Toronto.

Reid, Sheila and Denny May. 1997. Wings of a Hero. Vanwell Publishing ltd., St. Catharines, ON.

Smith, Jacob. 2012. The Thrill Makers: Celebrity, Masculinity, and Stunt Performance. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Toland, John. 1980. No Man’s Land- 1918 the Last Year of the Great War. Ballantine Books, NY.

Watt, Frederick B. 1980. Great Bear – a Journey Remembered. Outcrop, ltd.

3 comments

  1. Good and timely article.

    Just a note that “Wop” May’s unique medal group was generously donated by his son, Denny, to the Royal Alberta Museum’s Military and Political History Program some years ago. Also noteworthy in the Museum’s collection is a piece of the strut from the wing of the Red Baron’s plane recovered by Roy Brown from the wreck. Although somewhat controversial, it is believed that Von Richthofen was shot down by Australian ground troops rather than Canadian Roy Brown. Regardless, it stands as one of Wop May’s luckier days!

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