A living legend: Museum honours Johnny May’s final holiday flight

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Onlookers watch as Johnny May flies his aircraft overhead during a Kuujjuaq Christmas candy drop.

With Santa by his side, legendary Inuit bush pilot Johnny May is preparing for his final Kuujjuaq Christmas candy drop before he says goodbye to a sweet tradition.

“For more than 50 years, May has faithfully dropped a medley of candies and gifts for the residents of Kuujjuaq – a village in Nunavik, Quebec,” explains Linda Brand, an interpretation officer for community programs at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. “It’s a beloved tradition, and this Christmas marks the end of an era.”

A pilot sits at the controls of an aircraft, with a headset over his ears.

Johnny May flew his first solo flight at age 16.

May was born in Kangiqsualujjuaq, at the mouth of the George River in northern Quebec. The 74-year-old pilot is a long-time resident of Kuujjuaq, and is well known among the town’s population of roughly 3,000 residents for his Santa-like drops every December 25.

“It started with just candy in 1965, but over the years it has really evolved,” says Brand, explaining that the Kuujjuaq recreation committee fundraises money to buy items for the drop by holding bingo games. “Over the years, May has dropped winter clothing items, and sometimes envelopes with coupons to redeem for big-ticket items.”

A hero of the North

As special as those candy drops have been, May is even more revered for his countless heroic search-and-rescue missions in the harrowing North. For most of his career, May flew in areas where topographical maps didn’t exist. Often, he would land his bush plane on tundra or ice, depending on the time of year and the weather, to rescue those who had lost their way in the harsh conditions.

The pilot stands with his wife on one side and the book’s author on the other, next to a painting of his aircraft.

Johnny May with his wife, Louisa (left), and children’s author Linda Brand (right).

In 2013, the National Film Board produced a feature documentary, The Wings of Johnny May. The film details many of his adventures during more than 35,000 hours of flight time he’s logged, as well as the rugged beauty of the Nunavik territory. However, makers of the film said it was a challenge to convince the very modest May to agree to the creation of a film about his life.

Ontario-based Bush Pilot Brewing Company even named their third bottled release in May’s honour. The beer, named “Pengo Pally,” means “I miss you” in the Inuktitut language. This message – in English and Inuktitut – was stenciled on the fuselage of Johnny May’s De Havilland Beaver, as a tribute to his wife, Louisa.

The pilot stands next to a small white aircraft, which is floating on the water next to a dock.

Johnny May stands next to his trusty aircraft.

An inspiring story

At the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, staff have their own way of honouring May. Brand authored a colourful children’s book, The Kuujjuaq Christmas Candy Drop, which was published in 2015.

“It’s an uplifting and inspiring story, written for Inuit youth across Canada,” says Brand, adding that a shipment of the books was donated to more than 30 Inuit classrooms in Labrador in 2017. “Johnny May is a wonderful role model.”

Through the holidays, this beautifully-illustrated book will be presented daily, in English and French. Children will learn about May’s unique way of sharing the holiday spirit, followed by a candy drop at the end of the reading. Brand’s book can also be purchased at the museum’s gift shop.

Staff at the museum recently packaged up a box of pilot-themed teddy bears to send to May in Kuujjuaq, to be included in his final flight.

“Although Johnny May is hanging up his candy sack, the legacy of this exceptional man will most certainly endure for many years to come,” says Brand.

For full details on holiday events at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, visit Holiday magic at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum.

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Sonia Mendes

Sonia Mendes is the English Writer/Editor for Ingenium. She loves digging behind the scenes to tell the quirky, colourful stories of museum life and all things related to science and innovation.