CBC Digital Archives

The RCMP get their man, thanks to a bush pilot

They were intrepid and resourceful pioneers who took to the skies: carrying passengers, mapping new territory, hauling necessities, discovering hidden gold and carrying out daring rescues. The CBC Digital Archives salutes some of the many bush pilots who made monumental contributions to the exploration of uncharted Canada.

Albert Johnson had been the object of much curiosity and speculation upon his arrival in 1931 near Fort McPherson in the Northwest Territories. But when he wounds one RCMP officer and murders Const. Edgar Millen, he becomes the object of a highly publicized manhunt early in 1932. After weeks of fruitless pursuit on land, the RCMP realizes Johnson had managed to cross the Richardson Mountains, and the decision is made to enlist the help of a bush pilot. In this clip from 1979 flight mechanic Jack Bowen tells the story of his trip on board Wilfrid "Wop" May's Bellanca aircraft, and how their involvement accelerated the resolution of the chase.
• The hunt for Johnson began with an incident on Dec. 31, 1931 when he shot an RCMP constable, Alfred King, through the door of his cabin. King and three other officers had arrived there to deal with a complaint from other trappers in the area. King survived the gunshot despite the 20 hours necessary to cover the 130 kilometres from the isolated Rat River location of Johnson's cabin to Aklavik, NWT to receive medical treatment.
  • A posse of nine men attempted to capture Johnson on Jan. 9, but failed. They returned to Aklavik, and within the week the chase had begun: Johnson had fled his cabin, and seemed unhampered by the severe weather.

• Const. Edgar Millen was one of a party of four assigned to track the trapper. On Jan. 30, they found the trapper at his camp. A gunfight broke out and Millen was shot through the heart and died.

• On Feb. 3, Wilfrid "Wop" May left Fort McMurray with mechanic Jack Bowen and Const. William Carter, Millen's replacement. They took some days to reach Aklavik, because of bad weather, But once they arrived, the ensuing aerial chase enabled the ground party to track Johnson. May was able to drop much-needed supplies for the men and sled dogs. It was Feb. 17 by the time Johnson was cornered and killed, but not before another officer, Sgt. Earl Hersey , was wounded. May played a vital role in the swift return of Hersey to a hospital, and he survived his wounds. The flight was a harrowing one, over mountains and through storms, but the 200-kilometre journey was made in 45 minutes, with not a moment to spare.

• Canadian singer and songwriter Wilf Carter immortalized the event in a song called The Capture of Albert Johnson. The story has also been captured in several novels, non-fiction publications, and highly fictionalized film versions, one called Challenge to Be Free and the other called Death Hunt

Medium: Radio
Program: People in Landscape Broadcast Date: July 26, 1979 Guest(s): Jack Bowen Interviewer: Garnet Anthony Duration: 5:24 Photo: Wop May (left) and Jack Bowen (right) Glenbow Museum collection NA-1258-106

Last updated: February 13, 2012

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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