Fort Vermillion Mercy Flight of 1929

By Neil Taylor

Editor’s note: Ninety years ago this month, the Mercy Flight by Wop May and Vic Horner, was a pivotal moment for aviation in Edmonton. It proved that aircraft and bush pilots could play a key role in transportation, connecting far-flung communities and helping develop the resources of the North. The feat received international attention and pushed civic officials in Edmonton to approve money to upgrade Blatchford Field, setting the stage for Edmonton to play a historic role in Canada’s aviation history.

Dr. Bow gives Wop May the antitoxin serum wrapped in a blanket (DennyMay Collection)

Originally established as a North West Company fur trading post in 1788, Fort Vermilion by the 1920s was a bustling frontier agricultural and trading community on the banks of the Peace River in northern Alberta. Then in late December 1928 a medical emergency struck that threatened the very existence of the community and the surrounding indigenous settlements.

Bert Logan, a Hudson’s Bay Company employee living in Little Red River, a tiny settlement 80 kilometres down river from Fort Vermilion, collapsed with a suspected case of diphtheria. A horse drawn wagon was dispatched to Fort Vermilion to retrieve the area doctor, Dr. Harold Hamman. Dr. Hamman immediately recognized the gravity of the situation and sought to get a message to provincial health authorities in Edmonton calling for an urgent shipment of antitoxin to Fort Vermilion.

Joe LaFleur and William Lambert, experienced river men, departed Fort Vermilion on December 18 bound by dog sled for Peace River where they could telegraph news of the outbreak to Edmonton. It took the two men until December 28 to reach Peace River by which time they had both contracted influenza but the message got through.

Dr. Malcolm Bow, Deputy Minister of Health, immediately assembled 500,000 units of diphtheria antitoxin but was faced with the
seemingly insurmountable problem of how to get it to Fort Vermilion over 660 kilometres to the northwest. There were no cabin aircraft in Edmonton, and it would take too long to bring one in from Winnipeg, so Dr. Bow turned to local aviator Wilfrid ‘Wop’ May to fly the emergency supplies to Fort Vermilion.

Wop immediately recruited his friend and fellow pilot Vic Horner, and together they prepared their tiny two-seater open cockpit Avro Avian (G-CAVB) for the freezing trip north. It was -28C on the morning of January 2, 1929 when Dr. Bow handed Wop the package of serum which, wrapped in a blanket, was placed inside a baggage compartment next to a charcoal heater to keep it warm.

The wind was biting cold as the two men, bundled up in heavy coats, pants and felt boots, followed the Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia Railway’s tracks to Smith then skirted around the southern shore of Lesser Slave Lake. Smoke from a fire in the baggage compartment forced the men to land, and they quickly discovered that the charcoal heater had set the blanket on fire. Discarding the blanket and heater, May and Horner carried the serum under their armpits and between their legs to prevent it from
freezing and continued northwest to McLennan where they stopped due to increasing darkness.

On the morning of January 3 the men departed for Peace River where
they refueled before covering the final leg of their journey to Fort Vermilion. The local citizens had cleared a section of the frozen Peace River,
and even though the Avian was on wheels instead of skis, Wop May brought it down to a safe landing around 3:00 pm. The two aviators, nearly at the end of their physical endurance and suffering from frostbite due to the bitter cold, had to be physically lifted out of the cockpit. Dr. Hamman immediately took possession of the serum and arranged for inoculations for all residents of Fort Vermilion and Little Red River, but for Wop May and Vic Horner, their suffering was still not over – they now faced an arduous flight back to Edmonton.

L. to R. Dr. Harold Hamman, Vic Horner, Wop May and an RCMP officer at Ft. Vermilion, Jan. 3, 1929. (Denny May Collection)

After a well-deserved night’s sleep, May and Horner prepared the Avian for take-off but were forced to use automobile gasoline since no aviation fuel was available in Fort Vermilion. The inferior fuel proved problematic and upon landing in Peace River the two men were forced to spend two nights there while repairs were made to the Avian’s engine.

Finally, on January 6, 1929, May and Horner departed on the final leg of their return trip in the midst of a raging snow storm with temperatures hovering around -34C. A crowd of nearly 10,000 gathered at Blatchford Field to await their arrival, and when the Avian finally appeared through the clouds they surged forward to congratulate the returning heroes.

To ensure there was no accident Wop taxied the biplane to the far end of the field before cutting the motor. Civic officials and ordinary citizens alike descended on the two aviators who stiff, sore and cut from the biting wind desired nothing more than to get out of the cold.

Thousands of people turned up at Blatchford Field in bone chilling cold to welcome the flying heroes home. (Denny May Collection)

Through the heroic actions of Wop May and Vic Horner, only one death, that of Bert Logan, resulted from the diphtheria outbreak. All of the other inhabitants of Fort Vermilion and Little Red River were saved. For May and Horner, they were already thinking of their next adventure – the creation of Commercial Airways which was to receive, later in 1929, the first air mail contract in the Mackenzie River district.

Note:  The author wishes to acknowledge that most of the material for this article was drawn from Denny May’s excellent website about his father – Photos are from AAM archives – Denny May Collection