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Wop May’s Place In History

Wop May’s Place In History

From the Red Baron to the Mad Trapper
By Tim Edwards
Sep 14
From the August/September 2016 Issue

Throughout his life, history either followed Manitoba-born Wilfrid Reid “Wop” May or he followed it. During May’s second day deployed as a fighter pilot in World War I, in 1918, a red biplane caught his tail and gave chase. It was the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, a German noble still considered one of the best fighter pilots in the albeit-short history of aerial warfare. And it would be his last flight. As he pursued May, bullets came at the Red Baron from all sides. One pierced his lungs and heart, and Richthofen stayed alive just long enough to land his plane in a field.

May himself came out no worse for wear, and would go on to quickly establish himself as an ace in the Royal Air Force. 

Upon returning, May and his brother founded Canada’s first registered airline, May Airplanes Ltd., out of Edmonton. They performed stunts and toured around the province, and then, in September 1919, May flew Alberta provincial police in the first aerial pursuit of a criminal in Canada—cop-killer John Gundard Larsen.

Wop May loading his airplane in Aklavik, NWT, during the hunt for the Mad Trapper in 1932. Public Domain

But it was another manhunt for which May was more famous: that of the Mad Trapper of Rat River, Albert Johnson. After Johnson shot and wounded a police officer who’d been executing a warrant against him for illegal trapping, he led police on a chase through the wilderness near Aklavik towards the Yukon border. The RCMP brought May on board to help track the man down. May flew over the area looking for signs and also scouted by dogteam, and he figured out Johnson’s plot: he’d wandered into a herd of caribou and walked among them, allowing him to both travel easily on hard-packed snow and obscure his own tracks among the hoofprints. Shortly after, they found Johnson and engaged him in a firefight. Johnson was killed, and a young man named Hersey nearly died himself; May loaded Hersey into his Bellanca monoplane and flew him through a mountain pass back to Aklavik, during a heavy snowstorm, and the doctor said the man would have died had he arrived 15 minutes later.

May had many an adventure in the North, flying contracts and delivering airmail, and he would distinguish himself yet again in World War II: This time, as a search and rescue parachuter in northern Canada, helping American pilots who downed aircraft on their way up through Canada to Alaska and on to the Soviet Union. 

May died in 1952 of a stroke while hiking with his son in Utah. He was 56.