Wilfred ‘Wop’ May sat in the Canadian Airways office at Fort McMurray, Alberta on a cold February night in 1932, transfixed by police radio reports of a drama unfolding on the tundra in the Northwest Territories. The developing story was of the ‘Mad Trapper’, a mysterious fugitive using the alias ‘Albert Johnson’. It had gripped newspaper headlines around the world. Albert had already shot two RCMP officers, killing one. ‘Wop’ was among a select few with radio access in the area and was following the chilling police broadcasts of the posse pursuing the murderer. This was the first time in history radio broadcast was utilised in a police chase. Little did ‘Wop’ know he would soon become history’s first pilot to track a fugitive from the air.
From the moment the secretive and abrasive ‘Mad Trapper’ arrived in the Rat River area, he drew the notice of locals. He constructed a log cabin in an isolated area and occasionally took to spoiling the trap lines of local hunters. What had begun as an RCMP visit to discuss these allegations, quickly escalated into a series of gun fights outside the cabin.
Upon inspection, the officers, led by Inspector Eames, quickly found the structure to be less of a cabin and more a fortress, constructed with double thick walls, no windows, and rifle slits built into corners. Despite blasting their way in with dynamite, Johnson avoided injury and escaped using a tunnel dug below the log walls. With no trace of the ‘Mad Trapper’ and supplies running low, Eames knew they needed a new tactic to track down the murderer. They needed an airplane. ‘Wop’ May was their pilot.
By the time ‘Wop’ May had readied the Canadian Airways Bellanca Pacemaker, CF-AKI, the ‘Mad Trapper’ had shot and killed one of his pursuers, Officer ‘Spike’ Millen. ‘Wop’s first task was to carry provisions to the RCMP posse and return the frozen body of Officer Millen to Aklavik. While flying over the area, ‘Wop’ noticed that the ‘Mad Trapper’s’ snowshoe tracks doubled back. ‘Wop’ reported the possibility of an ambush by radio to Inspector Eames who was in the field.
With ‘Wop’ May delivering supplies and updates on Johnson’s whereabouts, the officers continued their chase over 240 kilometers into the Yukon and toward the Alaska border. On day 48 of the chase, as ‘Wop’ flew toward the RCMP camp on Eagle River, he spied a startling sight. Johnson had ambushed the RCMP from behind some logs on the frozen river and one officer was wounded. ‘Wop’ watched Johnson suddenly fall limp. ‘Wop’ rocked the Bellanca back and forth to signal to the officers on the ground that their shots had hit the target. Hastily ‘Wop’ landed and carried the injured Sergeant Hersey back to Aklavik, where doctors reported that the quick trip had saved the Sergeant’s life.
The aid of ‘Wop’ May and the Canadian Airways Bellanca allowed RCMP to track the fugitive and remain supplied as they continued their chase across the tundra. Without these ‘eyes in the sky’, the veteran woodsman would surely have escaped. Although justice was served, the true identity of ‘The Mad Trapper’ remains a mystery to this day.