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Delivering the Gift of Life

For the Week of Monday, January 1, 2018

On January 2, 1929, First World War fighter ace Wilfrid “Wop” May flew lifesaving vaccines to Fort Vermilion, a remote community in northern Alberta.

May’s mercy flight earned him an Order of the British Empire in 1935. He died in 1952 and, in 1973, was inducted into Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame.
Courtesy of Denny May

Wilfrid Reid May was born March 20, 1896, in Carberry, Manitoba. In 1916, he enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force and served as a pilot in the First World War. Achieving 13 aerial victories, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

In 1919, he founded Edmonton’s first airline, May Airplanes Limited, and helped establish Commercial Airways, which received a government contract in 1929 for airmail delivery rights to Canada’s northwest. The experience honed his already exceptional flying skills. That year, the Department of National Defence awarded him the McKee Trophy for his contributions to Canadian aviation.

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Dr. Malcolm Bow hands serum to pilot Wilfrid May
Courtesy of Denny May

On December 28, 1928, a telegram arrived in Edmonton from Fort Vermilion reading: DIPHTHERIA. FEAR EPIDEMIC. SEND ANTI-TOXIN. This contagious bacterial infection, associated with heart failure and paralysis, was a leading cause of child mortality. However, Fort Vermillion was over 600 kilometres away and it was the middle of winter. When Alberta’s Deputy Health Minister Dr. Malcolm Bow received the message, he entrusted the important task to May, famous for his skills as a pilot.

May, in turn, enlisted fellow Edmonton Flying Club member Vic Horner to accompany him on the dangerous, two-day flight. They departed January 2, 1929, in an Avro Avian light aircraft. In the open cockpit, where temperatures dropped as low as -33° Celsius, the pilots kept the serum warm by storing it alongside charcoal burners kept in a compartment behind them. When the burners caught fire and had to be abandoned, the pilots maintained the temperature by tucking the serum inside their clothing. They flew at 500 feet in altitude, where wind greatly reduced visibility and caused ice to form on the wings. To avoid sinking into the snow, they had to land on a frozen river, which had been shovelled clear by locals. Despite these obstacles, they arrived safely with the serum in tow.

Wilfrid May is a designated national historic person and Fort Vermilion is a national historic site. To learn more about May, read Pioneer of Bush Aviation in the This Week in History archives.

Parks Canada launched This Week In History 20 years ago! Check out @ParksCanada and visit the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada website.

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