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Thunderbirds 72-010 Wop May’s Bellanca CH-300 Pacemaker

Wilfrid Reid “Wop” May, O.B.E., D.F.C., was born in Carberry, Manitoba, on 20th March, 1896. He moved with his family to Edmonton in 1902 and attended school there and in Calgary. A WWI ace credited with 13 victories, he is perhaps best known as the pilot of the Sopwith Camel that Manfred von Richtofen was chasing when he was shot down and killed on 21st April, 1918. May’s post-war career as one of the greatest bush pilots in Canadian history may be less well known outside of Canada however.

In 1919, May returned to Edmonton and, alongside his brother Court, formed May Airplanes Limited, the first air service in Edmonton. In 1927 he helped establish Edmonton’s first licensed commercial airport and later founded Commercial Airways with friends Cy Becker and Vic Horner. In early January 1929, Wop and Vic undertook a heroic mercy flight, flying desperately needed diphtheria anti-toxin into the snowbound community of Fort Vermillion. Flying a two-seat open cockpit Avro Avian III over 600 miles of sparsely inhabited territory, they encountered frequent snow storms and temperatures down to -34°C. By the end of the flight they were so cold that they had to be helped out of the cockpits.

Later in 1929 Commercial Airways was awarded the Mackenzie River district airmail contract and May purchased 3 Bellanca Pacemakers to service the mail flights. May was awarded the Trans-Canada (McKee) Trophy in 1929 in recognition of his work in organising air services to remote districts. The airmail contract was not renewed however and May was forced to sell out to Canadian Airways in 1931.

May continued flying CF-AKI as Chief Pilot for Canadian Airways. He was in the news again in 1932 during the hunt for Albert Johnson, the Mad Trapper of Rat River who had earlier killed a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer. Flying Bellanca AKI, May was instrumental in tracking Johnson down. During the final shoot-out another RCMP officer was wounded and if not for May flying him to hospital he would surely have died.

With the outbreak of WWII, May was asked to set up and manage No. 2 Air Observers School. In 1941 May was grounded due to poor health. He made a full recovery and led an active life until dying in 1952 while hiking with his son Denny.