This Week in History


Pioneer of Bush Aviation

For the week of Monday March 20, 2006

Wilfrid Reid May, nicknamed “Wop,” was born on March 20, 1896, in Carberry, Manitoba. He was a pioneer among the bush pilots who played a dominant role in the cartography, discovery and development of the northern territories and in the expansion of the industry and of bush aviation possibilities in Canada from 1920-30.

Wilfrid Reid May in England, 1917
© Glenbow Archives / NA-1258-2

When the First World War erupted, Wilfrid May enlisted in the 202nd Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force. In Europe, he joined the Royal Air Forces, and he became a fighter pilot in 1918. Transferred to the Western Front, he became a novice pilot in the 209 Squadron, commanded by famed fighter pilot, Roy Brown. May distinguished himself by taking part in the elimination of a renowned enemy, Manfred von Richtofen, the “Red Baron.”

During the inter-war period, he became involved in Canadian civil aviation. In 1919, he and his brother established May Aeroplanes Limited, a company that provided travel between Alberta and Saskatchewan. In 1927, May helped create the first flying club in Canada, the Edmonton and Northern Alberta Aero Club. In 1929, as one of the founders of Commercial Airways, he initiated the first air postal service in the Arctic, travelling as far north as Aklavik. He was then assigned a humanitarian aid mission: transport antitoxins to Fort Vermilion, Alberta, to help bring a diphtheria epidemic under control. In 1932, he assisted in the arrest of the Mad Trapper, a criminal who was trapping illegally near the Rat River in the Northwest Territories. The aviator earned numerous distinctions, including the McKee Trophy in 1929 and the Order of the British Empire in 1935.

May's airplane, Edmonton in Alberta, 1919.
© Glenbow Archives / NC-6-4926

During the Second World War, May helped established the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, and became the director general of Air Observer School Number 2 in Edmonton, which was operated by Canadian Pacific Air Lines. In 1947, he received the American Medal of Freedom for his work as a member of the parachute rescue team.

After he was involved in an accident in 1938, he became progressively blind and his pilot’s licence was revoked. Wilfrid Reid “Wop” May died on June 21, 1952, in Provo, Utah. He was inducted in Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame in 1973 and was designated a national historic person the following year. This pioneer was honoured in the Bush Pilots of Canada national historic event in 1960.

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