Our First Aerial Police Pursuit –
Now on the stage!

Story and photos by John Chalmers,
CAHS Membership Secretary

One of Canada’s great aviation stories is now the subject of a new play, in which the pilot, who is an original member of Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame, Wop May, flies again!

In Edmonton, Alberta, on August 30, 1919, police constable William Nixon was fatally shot at 3:00 a.m. while on foot patrol. He had joined the police force starting in 1912. Nixon then enlisted in the army for the First World War, was awarded the Military Medal for bravery and afterwards returned to the police force two days after returning from overseas.

00 William NixonConstable Nixon, shown at right, is remembered at the Canadian Police Memorial Pavilion on Parliament Hill in Ottawa and on a monument on the grounds of the Alberta Legislature Building. Nixon is also remembered by the naming of the William Nixon Training Centre of the Edmonton Police Service. (Internet photo)

The alleged killer was John Gundard Larsen, also suspected of armed robberies and two other shootings. He fled Edmonton by train to Edson, Alberta, (pop. 8,400 now, 800 in 1919) a town 200 km west. On September 2, city police called upon Wilfrid “Wop” May, O.B.E., DFC, who with his brother, Court, had recently formed May Airplanes Ltd. with a single aircraft, a Curtiss JN-4 biplane, known as a “Jenny”. Wop was asked to fly Detective James Campbell to Edson to join the manhunt.

The story of that manhunt is now the subject of a new play, The Flying Detective, focusing on the part of James Campbell in the first aerial police chase in the British Empire. The play was commissioned by the Edson and District Historical Society from the Accidental Humour Co. of Edmonton.

01 Airborne

On stage, Wop May in the rear seat of a Curtiss Jenny, flies an apprehensive detective, James Campbell, to Edson to join the manhunt for the suspected killer.

An ace fighter pilot in the First World War serving with the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Air Force, Captain Wop May (1896-1952) is credited with bringing down 13 enemy aircraft. He later became a famed bush pilot. During the Second World War he served as manager of No. 2 Air Observer School in Edmonton, a Second World War school of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.

02 May and Campbell

Pilot Wop May (William Banfield) and Detective Campbell (Cody Porter) shake hands after landing on a street in Edson.

Two hours after takeoff, the Jenny and its two occupants landed in Edson, which had no airfield. Twelve hours later and south of Edson, Detective Campbell had Larsen under arrest. But Larsen escaped while handcuffed, was re-captured and taken by train back to Edmonton. He was tried, convicted and jailed for his crimes.

The play was first presented in August at the Edmonton Fringe Theatre Festival to sold-out houses. The play integrates live performance with video on three very large screens in a unique treatment of the story. The official premiere of the play, a slightly longer two-act version, was presented in Edson on August 31 and September 1.

03 Campbells

Seen here after the Fringe presentation in Edmonton are left to right, great-great grandsons Ian and Lachlan Campbell with their father, John, at far right with Cody Porter, who played the part of the flying detective. (Photo courtesy of John Campbell)

The most amazing aspect of the staging is the building of a Curtiss Jenny right before the eyes of the audience! In moments, the airplane is assembled, the men are seated in the cockpit and the propeller spins. The Jenny is soon “flying” among the clouds.

04 Wops medals

August 30 – September 1 were proclaimed as Wop May Days in Edson. At the town’s Galloway Station Museum, May was remembered in a banner, a mural, merchandise and artifacts such as this display of his pilot’s wings from the RFC and his miniature medals.

A special event during Wop May Days was the dedication of a historical sign about the aerial pursuit and the manhunt, along with two photos of the Jenny on an Edson street. The sign is located at the hamlet of Robb (population 170), some 60 km south of Edson, close to the site of the culprit’s capture.

05 John and Denny

Cutting a ribbon at the sign marking the 100th anniversary of the aerial pursuit and speaking at the event were John Campbell, left, a great-grandson of the detective, and Denny May, son of Wop May. Several members from both families were present for the occasion.

06 School

The beautifully restored 1913 Edson School, now known as the Red Brick Arts Centre and Museum includes a 1920s classroom and the theatre where The Flying Detective had its premiere.

07 Denny MayAttending the play in Edson at a sold-out gala event that rewarded the players with a sustained standing ovation were members of the May and Campbell families. “What a wonderful experience!” says Denny May, seen at right. “Dad would have loved the play - a murder mystery, a dangerous flight, tracking down a killer, and humour included, which was very appropriate. I was so proud to see my father honoured this way, and by the Town of Edson. We were pleased that the Campbell family was well represented and had the opportunity to share the heroics of their relative James Campbell, the flying detective.” (For more information about Wop May, see

The play now goes to more towns during the months ahead. See To book the play, write to