When Edmonton writer Tom Robinson was asked by filmmaker Frederick Kroetsch to draft a script for a short film about Wop May, the celebrated Canadian aviator, he was only aware of the pilot’s exploits in the first world war.
“I had a vague recollection about him, a basic name recognition of something about the Red Baron. That seems to be the common perception,” said Robinson who found, while researching, that there was little out there about the feats of the 20th century bush pilot and aviation visionary.
Robinson and Kroetsch have gone a long way to change that with their exhilarating, multi-media documentary on Wop May. Released in late 2021 and winning a Jury Award at the Edmonton International Film Festival, the film was shot at the Alberta Aviation Museum and other Alberta locations.
“I got anything I could out of what literature was available. I found about six books, of varying quality and in-depthness,” recalled Robinson, who co-directed the film with Kroetsch. “His story is quite romantic, and people want to embellish.”
As Denny May, Wop May’s late son, affirmed at the opening of the 22-minute film, “my dad was a bit of a superman; a bit like a super hero. People would say, "I remember when your dad was here, or I used to work for your dad, and I would get all these wonderful stories. I think he wanted to help people, and do whatever was necessary.”
Wilfrid ‘Wop’ May’s achievements unfold like a Hollywood action adventure: surviving a dogfight with Baron von Richthofen on his second day of aerial war combat, and his legendary diphtheria anti-toxin delivery to Fort Vermilion for the people of Little Red River, are a couple of examples.
After returning from overseas, May and his brother were among the first of the barnstormers, doing daredevil stunts to cheering 1920s crowds. In 1919, he was the first pilot to assist in a manhunt, followed about a decade later with the assignment to track Albert Johnson, the ‘Mad Trapper’. May helped set up the first air search and rescue at the end of WWII, while starting airline companies for service to the north. And, he did much of his work while going blind in one eye.
“I realized all I have to do is tell his literal story," said Robinson. “His death-defying acts during WWI, becoming a stunt pilot despite the injury to his eye, and being the person with the airplane when it was needed for the mercy flight. As Denny said, there’s so much more.”
Kroetsch learned about May's eye injury from then Alberta Aviation Museum curator Lech Lebiedowski, and knew he had to make the film. In the fall of 2019, producer and cinematographer David Baron was brought on board, and the team quickly realized the original $20,000 grant fell short of the mark.
“Frederick wanted to do a stop-motion short about the mercy flight, but Lech said, ‘You can’t stop there’,” recalled Robinson.
When Baron pushed for a Hollywood style, golden-age-of-cinema re-creation, the approach changed. Footage was shot on 35mm filmstock in anamorphic format, and an orchestral score added, giving the final production a larger-than-life cinematic feel.
To bring the archival photos to life, the team put photos in picture frames or attached a photo to the side of an old, far north cabin and moved around the shot that way. For the epic aerial sequences, a Piper Cub was borrowed from Reynolds Heritage Preservation Foundation. The Alberta Aviation Museum supplied costumes, aircraft and location for portions of the film.
May's legacy is noted in several ways, beyond his being awarded the Flying Cross and U.S. Medal of Freedom. The Edmonton neighbourhood of Mayfield is named in tribute to him, as is the airport at Fort Vermilion. There's even a boulder on Mars named 'WopMay'.
“May’s legacy is something we need to celebrate,” said Alberta Aviation Museum curator Ryan Lee, who wants to keep that legacy from fading into obscurity through museum visits and sharing the film for use in schools. "May hired women, Chinese-Canadian pilots, despite the racist policies at that time. He was known as a strict boss, but also fair."
Blind Ambition: The Wop May story is part of the permanent collection at the Alberta Aviation Museum in Edmonton. See albertaaviationmuseum.com and wopmay.com for more.
Wop May legacy holds strong in northern communities
Steven Simpson, Fort Vermilion Heritage Centre coordinator, says the name Wop May and the saga of the mercy flight, Christmas, 1928, still stirs a sense of pride there and in the neighbouring Metis/Cree community of Little Red River.
After a Hudson's Bay Company employee was confirmed to have diphtheria, May was asked to deliver the anit-toxin by air. “His commitment alleviated the residents' vulnerable state,” he said.
“It’s still a pretty big deal here,” remembered Ray Toews of Fort Vermilion, who helped rename the airport to the Wop May Memorial in 2018. “It’s easy to forget history and I’ve tried to keep it alive.”
Vic Horner was co-pilot with May during their bitterly cold January flight to get the diphtheria serum to the two settlements. While their legacy is well known, there are participants celebrated in northern communities who often get overlooked farther south.
Simpson highlights the actions of Joe Lafleur and his son-in-law William Lambert, who delivered the message of diphtheria to the Peace River telegraph post.
The two Métis trappers left Fort Vermilion December 18. After falling through the ice with their horse team and returning to Fort Vermilion to re-provision, it took them eight more days to travel by frozen river and overland to Peace River – a distance of 375 km. The men arrived on New Year's Day, and after delivering the message were taken to the hospital to recover from flu.
St. Theresa Hospital in Fort Vermilion has a plaque honouring the five men responsible for averting the diphtheria outbreak. They include Dr. Hamman as well as Joe Lafleur and William Lambert.
Re-enactments and commemorations have taken place over the years, and Toews was invited to the 55th anniversary of the mercy flight, when he was flown to the City Centre Airport, formerly Blatchford field.
“I’m not sure anybody has ever said thank you, so I made a point of thanking Vic Horner and Wop May,” said Toews. “These guys risked their lives. It’s important to say thank you, and important to keep this alive.”
After his history making flight, Wop May went on to connect communities across the north and far north, providing air service to remote settlements and opening the arctic and Pacific rim to commercial flight.