It’s time to travel back to 1975 and to the Isle of Mull off the West coast of Scotland for a fascinating little mystery. I first heard about this back in the late 1970s. It intrigued me back then and I still think it has all the ingredients needed for a classic mystery. It’s not particularly well known outside the UK so I hope this may also be a chance to introduce some readers to this fascinating case.
When Peter Gibbs went missing in his light aircraft on Christmas Eve 1975 it appeared to be a simple case of misadventure. However, a massive air-sea search operation on following days and a major mountain rescue effort failed to find any trace of the missing plot or his aircraft. The discovery of Peter’s body four months later only made the circumstances of his death seem even more baffling. There are a number of known facts, but they don’t seem to add up to a simple or obvious answer and this case still provokes a great deal of speculation and conjecture.
The Glenforsa Hotel on the Isle of Mull has a fairly unusual selling point. Not only is it located close to the sea in breathtaking scenery, but since 1966 it has also had its own grass landing strip. This is one of the few places in the world where it’s possible to land a light aircraft, park and then stroll directly into your hotel. The airstrip was built in 1965 and was intended as Mull’s only fixed-wing air evacuation facility for medical emergencies. On average, around one patient per year has been evacuated via this airstrip since its completion. However, since opening the strip has also been operated as a commercial airfield by the Howitt family who owned the adjacent Glenforsa Hotel. The original hotel was destroyed by fire in 1968 and was replaced by in 1969 a Scandinavian style wooden building and wooden chalets.
Glenforsa airstrip, looking West towards runway 26. The hotel building and chalets are in the trees to the left of the runway in this picture.
The grass strip at Glenforsa does not have most of the equipment we associate with modern airports. There is no control tower, no radar, no landing aids or beacons, no hangers and no taxiway or runway lights. In 1975 hotel staff did have access to radios tuned to aviation frequencies but this was the only concession to modern operating procedures. This was (and still is) a landing strip for VFR (Visual Flight Rules) flying only and it is generally not used in bad weather or darkness. Despite this, in the summer months the hotel is busy with visiting aircraft though in the winter it tends to be much quieter, catering mainly to local trade. However, on Christmas Eve 1975 the hotel had two guests who had arrived in an aircraft.
Fifty-four year old Norman Peter Gibbs (usually known as Peter) had flown in to the Glenforsa airstrip on the previous day with his thirty-two year old girlfriend and former university lecturer Felicity Grainger. Gibbs was Managing Director of Gibbs and Rae, a property development company and the purpose of his winter visit to the Highlands was to scout properties on the nearby Island of Skye. He was also looking forward to celebrating his Birthday on Christmas Day at the Glenforsa hotel.
The aircraft he arrived in was a Cessna F150H, registration number G-AVTN, call sign Tango November. The Cessna 150 is a very common type of two-seat light aircraft (the “F” prefix on this model indicates that it was built under license in France by Reims Aviation and the “H” suffix shows that it was first registered in 1968). G-AVTN was provided with a navigation/communication radio but was not equipped with parachutes and, as far as anyone knew, Gibbs did not own a parachute. Gibbs had hired the Cessna from Ian Hamilton, a prominent local solicitor and Sherriff (and incidentally also one of the four men who stole the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey in 1955) and had flown it on 23rd December from North Connel airfield near Oban, where it was based, to Glenforsa, a journey which took around ten minutes. Gibbs and Grainger stayed at the hotel on the night of the 23rd and on the 24th December Gibbs, accompanied by Grainger, flew the aircraft to Broadford on Skye and viewed some properties there before flying back to Glenforsa in the afternoon.
The Pilots of 41 Squadron, September 1944.
Gibbs is second from the left, standing, back row.
Gibbs was a very experienced pilot with over 2,000 flying hours in his logbook. He had been a fighter pilot flying Spitfires with 41 Squadron of the RAF during World War Two and continued flying after the war. In the 1950s he joined Surrey Flying Club and in 1957 bought a Tiger Moth biplane which he flew regularly until the aircraft was destroyed in a forced landing following engine failure at Redhill in Surrey in 1959. Gibbs continued to fly after crashing his Tiger Moth but what he failed to mention to Hamilton or anyone else was that his private pilot’s license had actually lapsed at the time he hired the Cessna and that at his previous general flying test a medical examiner had stipulated that he should wear spectacles at all times while flying. Grainger, who had flown with him on several occasions, said that she had never known him to wear spectacles while flying.
Gibbs had also been a very well known professional musician. A talented violin player (he had his Tiger Moth modified so that he could carry his violin in the luggage compartment) he had played with a number of orchestras around the world, had formed a string quarter that made a number of recordings and was the leader of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra from 1960 – 1963. Gibbs was known to be outspoken, supremely confident and was characterised by a number of acquaintances both as a risk taker and a practical joker (on one occasion he released a bag of live grasshoppers during a performance of the Philharmonia and on another he “bombed” the London Symphony Orchestra with flour bags from his Tiger Moth). Jonathan Harvey, a colleague from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, remembered his flying in particular:
“He remained passionately devoted to flying and would often take his plane to engagements. He rarely bothered with a map, but would dive down to read the road signs; in fact he showed a lofty disregard for the laws of aviation, at times flying under bridges, etc.”
Gibbs’ Tiger Moth in 1958. This aircraft was destroyed in a crash when Gibbs was attempting to land at Redhill Aerodrome, Surrey on 20th December 1959. Gibbs was uninjured.
By 1975, Gibbs’ career as a musician was over and he had started a property development company with a friend. He was interested in buying a hotel in the Highlands of Scotland and appeared fascinated by the airstrip at Glenforsa. He spoke to Grainger about the idea of a hotel with an adjacent landing strip and seemed to see this as a possible business opportunity.
On 24th December Gibbs and Grainger ate their evening meal at the Glenforsa Hotel and shared a bottle of claret. At around 9:00pm Gibbs abruptly announced that he intended to take the Cessna for a short flight and retired to his room to change into flying gear. When he returned to the bar, hotel staff tried to dissuade him. The night was completely dark with no moon and although the skies were clear, a storm front was expected to arrive within the hour. In addition the landing strip was not equipped for night operations and had no lights. Gibbs peremptorily explained that he was not asking permission for the flight, he was simply telling hotel staff as a courtesy. He went on to explain that he had good experience of night flying during his time with the RAF and that Grainger would assist with improvised runway lights. He also mentioned that he was interested in seeing whether a night takeoff and landing were practicable as this would increase the appeal of a hotel with a landing strip if it was possible. It was the understanding of the hotel staff and Grainger that Gibbs intended only to fly a single circuit1 lasting no more than five minutes and return.
G-AVTN, the Cessna 150 flown by Peter Gibbs on December 24th 1975
The airstrip at Glenforsa had occasionally been used at night, but only for emergency medical evacuation flights and in those cases car headlights had been used to illuminate the runway. However, Gibbs would not be dissuaded and he and Grainger walked out to the aircraft. Tim Howitt, manager of the hotel, watched anxiously as Gibbs prepared the aircraft for flight. Tim’s brother David and his wife Pauline who were staying in one of the wooden chalets and also worked at the hotel, were alerted by the sound of the aircraft engine starting and also watched as Gibbs prepared to take-off.
The aircraft taxied to the end of the runway and stopped. Grainger, who had been in the passenger seat, got out and arranged two small torches on the ground – Gibb’s “improvised landing lights”. At around 9:30 the aircraft took off on runway 262 and was seen to turn north, out over the Sound of Mull and then to continue to turn until it was flying almost due east on a downwind leg. At around the moment it should have turned to the south to enter the base leg, its navigation lights were lost to sight of those at the hotel as it passed behind trees. It was not seen again. The lights were turned out at the hotel to make it easier for those inside to see into the darkness outside, but there was no sign of Gibbs. A short time later, people leaving a church service in Oban (around ten minutes flying time from Glenforsa) were surprised to hear the sound of a light aircraft in the darkness overhead. By 10:00 Grainger, still standing on the airstrip, had become very concerned. Gibbs had told her that the flight should last “only a few minutes”. Since he had left, the wind had risen, clouds were scudding in from the west and sleet had started to fall. She returned to the hotel and reported to staff that Gibbs had failed to return.
Hotel staff immediately called the Police and, while waiting for them to arrive, David Howitt drove the hotel Ford Cortina to nearby Pennygown Cemetery and shone his headlights out over the water beyond the end of the runway. Having last seen the aircraft apparently about to enter the base leg of the circuit, Howitt believed that Gibbs might have undershot the approach to runway 26 and crashed in to the sea. Howitt was also equipped with a radio tuned to aviation frequencies but heard nothing from Gibbs though he did pick up a transmission from an RAF aircraft. He could see nothing in the water and increasingly heavy sleet and stormy weather made visibility poor so he returned to the hotel. While waiting for police to arrive Grainger mentioned that just before taking off, Gibbs had said to her that “If everything went wrong… He would throttle right back and jump to safety.”
The next day an extensive air/sea search operation began, but this was hampered by the severe storm which lasted more than 72 hours. RAF and Royal Navy Helicopters from Prestwick and Leuchars were used to scour the Island and the surrounding waters. The Police Mountain Rescue unit from Dunoon were used to search the hills and Lochs of Mull and local shepherds and forestry workers were asked to keep a look out for any sign of wreckage. Nothing was found and, after two weeks the search was called off and it was assumed that Gibbs had crashed into the sea.
As far as most people were concerned, that was the end of the story but things took a very strange turn four months later. On 21st April 1976 local shepherd Donald MacKinnon made a startling discovery 400 feet up a small hill overlooking the sound of Mull and Pennygown Cemetery and less than a mile from the airstrip at Glenforsa. Lying on its back across a larch log was the body of a man. David Howitt from the Glenforsa Hotel saw the body in-situ and immediately identified the clothes and flying boots that Peter Gibbs had been wearing on the evening he disappeared. The body was taken for forensic examination and dental records were used to confirm that it was indeed Peter Gibbs.
David Howitt in 2015 with Steve Punt during the making an episode on the Mull air mystery for the Radio 4 “Punt PI” series. You can find a link to a podcast of this episode at the end of this article.
The detailed examination of the body was conducted by Dr W.D.S. McLay, Chief medical Officer of Strathclyde Police and produced puzzling results. Toxicology tests proved negative and the only injury was a “superficial cut of around three inches on the right leg.” There were no other injuries and certainly nothing consistent with a person who had been involved in an air crash or who had jumped or fallen from an aircraft. In the absence of any identifiable cause of death it was assumed that Gibbs had most likely died of exposure. Tests were also done on the clothing and boots to check for traces of immersion in salt water, but nothing was found.
A fatal accident enquiry held was in Oban on 24th June 1976. This enquiry and subsequent press interest in the case produced some further anomalies. Donald MacKinnon, the shepherd who had discovered the body, was adamant that he and his dog had passed the spot where it was found on a number of occasions after Gibbs’ disappearance, but that it had not been there. Mountain Rescue teams had also passed this area during the initial search for Gibbs and had seen nothing. Local people also expressed surprise at the state of the body which was largely intact when it was found. Most people who were familiar with the finding of bodies (both human and animal) in the Scottish hills said that these were always attacked and parts distributed by predators if they were exposed for any length of time. For some reason this had not happened to Gibbs’ body. This led to speculation that the body had been dumped where it was found some time after death. In response to these points the medical examiner was only able to say that “the condition of the body was entirely consistent with it having lain where it was found for four months.”
David and Pauline Howitt also claimed that, while they had watched Gibbs manoeuvring the aircraft prior to take-off, they had both seen two torches being moved separately at the end of the runway. This seemed to imply the presence of a third person on the runway, but Grainger maintained she handled both torches alone. The Howitts also claimed that shortly after take-off they both saw something that looked like a flare on the Sound of Mull and that they watched this for around twenty seconds through binoculars before it disappeared. No-one else reported seeing this flare and no-one knew whether it was associated with Gibbs disappearance.
The medical examiner was questioned closely about the lack of evidence of immersion in saltwater on Gibbs’ clothing. He admitted that exposure for four months to the rain and snow of a Scottish winter might have washed this away, but he was not able to state certainly whether this was actually possible.
While accepting that the circumstances were very puzzling, the Fatal Accident Enquiry found that the most likely sequence of events was that Gibbs ditched the Cessna in the waters of the Sound of Mull on the approach to Runway 26, either following engine failure or some other technical issue or because Gibbs had become disoriented. He then swam to shore and climbed out close to Pennygown Cemetery. There, dazed, exhausted and in the early stages of hypothermia, he crossed the road (which would have led him to the Glenforsa Hotel had he followed it) and stumbled up the hill in front of him until he succumbed to cold and fatigue. Gibbs was buried in Oban in June 1976.
On October 5th 1976 Robert Duncan, a local farmer, found an aircraft tyre and inner tube washed ashore around two miles North West of Glenforsa. This was found to be of the same type fitted to the Cessna 150, but it was not possible to say with certainty whether it had come from G-AVTN.
In September 1986 George Foster, a professional diver searching for scallops in the Sound of Mull, reported discovering the wreckage of an aircraft in approximately 100 feet of water and around 500 metres (some accounts say 300 metres) from shore. The location was east of the end of the runway at Glenforsa. Foster examined the wreck and discovered that both wings and the engine had been torn from the aircraft. He was also able to note that both cockpit doors were closed but that the windscreen was completely destroyed. Foster took photographs but these were of such poor quality that it wasn’t possible to say if they actually showed an aircraft, let alone identify the wreck as G-AVTN. In some accounts Foster claimed that the aircraft he saw was red and white (G-AVTN was painted red and white) and that he was able to read the aircraft registration number on the rudder. However, Foster was never able to re-locate the wreck and no-one else was able to find it. Confusingly, some newspapers reported that the wrecked aircraft was discovered and reported by two local clam fishermen, brothers Richard and John Grieve. However, this seems to be an error. Richard and John Grieve are local divers and both have commented to the media on the alleged discovery of the wreck, but they do not claim to have discovered it or even to have seen it.
Glenforsa airstrip. Photo taken in the mid-1980s looking East, towards Oban during the annual Mull Air Rally. The hotel building and chalets can be seen to the right of the runway close to a number of parked aircraft. The hill on which Peter Gibbs body was found is at top right and the road he would have crossed had he come to the hill from the sea is also clearly visible. The red dot shows the approximate location where George Foster reported finding the wreck of G-AVTN in 1986.
In April 2004 three Royal Navy minesweepers (HMS Pembroke, HMS Penzance and HMS Inverness) operating in the Sound of Mull were testing equipment for locating mines when they discovered what appeared to be the wreck of an aircraft on the seabed in around 100 feet of water and close to the location identified by Foster. An underwater camera was deployed and initial reports suggested that the wreck was of a modern civilian aircraft, perhaps a Cessna, but bad weather hampered efforts to provide a positive identification. There was immediate press interest but it was later announced that the wreck was actually that of a wartime RAF Catalina flying boat lost in 1945 on a training exercise.
Now we have the facts, but what does it all add up to? There has been a great deal of interest in the Scottish press and elsewhere on what really happened to Peter Gibbs including some fairly outlandish theories.
First of all, let’s talk about the reasons for Gibbs flight. His decision to fly in darkness from an airstrip without runway lights, in a mountainous area and with bad weather expected within a short time seems suicidally stupid. His alleged comment to Grainger that if everything went wrong he would throttle back and simply jump out seems equally bizarre. No experienced pilot would attempt a flight which he considered might lead to him jumping out of the aircraft unless he had a very, very pressing reason to do so. And remember, we’re not talking about parachuting here. Gibbs meant that he would fly the aircraft as slowly as possible and then leap out. In complete darkness, not knowing if he was flying over a mountain or the sea.
His suggestion that he wanted to check if night flying from an unlit airstrip was possible doesn’t really make sense either. Even if he had somehow survived the flight and brought the aircraft back safely, this would have proved nothing beyond a very large slice of good luck. No sensible person would consider such a flight and it certainly wouldn’t have helped in setting up his own hotel with a landing strip.
There has been a great deal of speculation about the “real” reason for Gibb’s flight that night but most of it is ill-informed and some seems idiotic. For example, it has been suggested that Gibbs was a smuggler and that the flight was somehow connected with this, that he had been involved in a theft of diamonds in Oban two days before and that the flight was an attempt to dispose of the loot and even that Gibbs was a member of MI5 and that the purpose of the flight was to take an operative to Ireland (or to collect an operative and bring him back to Scotland, versions differ). It takes around five seconds of rational thought to dispose of most of these. If Gibbs flight had any clandestine purpose, the flight was a disaster from the very start. Short of strapping a flashing light on his head and walking up and down wearing a billboard reading “I’m stupid – look at me!” Gibbs could not have attracted more attention if he had tried. His flight and disappearance were reported to the authorities within thirty-five minutes of his taking off, as he must have known they would be when he didn’t return within a short time. He probably did have enough fuel to reach Ireland – a Cessna 150 has a range of around 300 miles on a full tank and G-AVTN had full tanks when he collected it from North Connell. However, this would involve flying a single engine aircraft with limited navigation equipment over the Irish Sea in darkness and into the teeth of an Atlantic storm. There are quicker and cheaper ways to kill yourself, but few that are less certain.
There has also been speculation about whether Gibbs was actually flying GAVTN that night. Those watching from the hotel noted that it seemed to take longer than usual to warm the aircraft up and that its lights were switched on and off several times before take-off. This, plus the Howitt’s assertion that they saw more than one person handling torches on the runway, has led some people to claim that there was a third person on the airstrip that night and that person actually flew G-AVTN. Various theories suggest that either Gibbs flew as passenger and was somehow overcome and pushed out of the aircraft in flight or that he remained on the ground and was subsequently murdered and his body dumped on the hill. However, even ignoring the practical difficulties, there is no shred of proof to support any of these ideas.
Whatever the reasons for the flight, there doesn’t seem any reasonable doubt that G-AVTN did take off that night and that Gibbs was flying, so, what happened? I’m a fan of Occam’s Razor, and for this reason the findings of the Fatal Accident enquiry are initially quite attractive. However, they also include some major problems. The first if that we must accept that Gibbs not only ditched his aircraft successfully on a dark sea, but that he did so without any injury. Aircraft cockpits are full of things that your head and upper body are likely to come into violent contact with even in a very low speed accident. I find it very difficult to believe that it’s possible to ditch an aircraft in the sea, in the dark with no injury other than superficial scratch on the right leg.
And even if Gibbs did somehow manage to ditch the aircraft and exit without injury, he was still faced with an urgent need to swim to shore. In the dark, with no way of knowing in which direction to swim to the nearest piece of shore and in choppy water at around 7°C. Survival time in water at that temperature is somewhere from 40 minutes – 1 hour. Even if you are just 500 metres from shore, and if you somehow manage to take the shortest route in the dark, the swim is going to take 20 – 30 minutes leaving you in a very poor state indeed when you do reach shore. However, if we are to believe the Fatal Accident Enquiry finding, we must accept that this fifty-four year old man also successfully completed this very challenging piece of swimming while wearing all his clothes and wearing or carrying his flying boots (he was wearing his clothes and boots when his body was found). I just can’t see that this is feasible. If you don’t agree, try swimming in the ocean while wearing clothes and heavy boots. If you survive, I think you may come round to my point of view.
Then we have to believe that he crossed a road before making his way 400 feet up a hill over rough ground. The road that leads to the Glenforsa Hotel runs within a few feet of the sea for long stretches on the North side of Mull. To reach the hill where the body was found from the sea, you must cross the road. Depending on precisely where you come ashore, you may actually have to cross two roads to get to the hill. If Gibbs had followed the road, he would have reached the hotel in around twenty minutes. Instead, we must believe that he chose to make his way up a hill which in the darkness he could barely see and over difficult terrain. This was raised at the Fatal Accident Enquiry and it was suggested that, by the time he pulled himself out of the sea, he was so exhausted and hypothermic that he simply wasn’t capable of making the rational choice to follow the road. And yet he still had the stamina to climb 400 feet over rough terrain and up a hill? Sorry, but that doesn’t sound right to me. In 2014 author Allan J Organ attempted to replicate the climb which Gibbs was said to have undertaken. Starting from the shoreline, Organ, an experienced hillwalker, managed to get just half way up to where the body was found before giving up, exhausted. To climb this far took him forty minutes and the climb was done in good weather and daylight. It simply is not feasible that anyone could have completed this climb in the dark, in bad weather and after a 500m swim in freezing water.
George Foster’s finding of a wrecked aircraft in 1986 seemed initially to back-up the enquiry’s findings, but again, there are problems. The position Foster gave for the wreck was consistent with where you might expect to find an aircraft that had entered the water on final approach to Glenforsa. However, Foster described an aircraft that had crashed, not ditched. It is not conceivable that a person could survive uninjured a crash violent enough to tear the wings and engine off an aircraft. And the fact that both cockpit doors were closed seems to rule out the possibility that Gibbs might have jumped out just before impact. It’s also worth noting that Foster is reported as saying that he had seen the aircraft registration on the rudder. Now, it’s possible that this is simple misreporting, but as you can see from the photograph of G-AVTN, it has no number on the rudder. The registration number, as on all UK civil aircraft, is on the rear fuselage. Is it possible that what Foster actually saw was the wrecked World War Two Catalina flying boat later discovered by Royal navy ships in the area? A Catalina doesn’t look much like a Cessna 150 (it’s much larger for one thing), and yet they are similar enough that initial reports from the navy suggested that they believed they had located the wreck of a Cessna.
RAF Catalina flying boat
And what about the lack of traces of immersion in seawater on Gibbs clothes? While rain and snow would wash some of these away, I find it hard to believe that every trace of water inside his clothing and boots could be completely removed. Taking all these points together, I find the enquiry findings very hard to accept.
I have doubts about the scenario suggested by the Fatal Accident Enquiry and I haven’t seen anything beyond unsupported conjecture to prove that Gibbs was accompanied by an unidentified person in the aircraft, or that Gibbs did not enter the aircraft at all or that Gibbs had some secret but compelling reason for undertaking the flight. So, what did happen?
As to the reasons for the flight, I think these are actually fairly simple. Gibbs was known to be a risk taker, in his flying and other elements of his life and Michael Gibbs, his son, says that his undertaking a dangerous and difficult flight just to see if it was possible would have been entirely in keeping with his father’s approach to life. Michael also maintains that his father had made other, successful, attempts to take-off and land at night guided by nothing more than “candles in jam-jars.” If we add measures of bravado, boredom and claret to the equation on the evening of the 24th, I think it is possible that Gibbs undertook the flight for no reason other than that it appealed to him because it was challenging, exciting and potentially dangerous.
I believe that Gibbs took off in G-AVTN alone and at around 09:30 on that evening. I think that his intention was to fly a simple circuit and land back on Runway 26, a process that would have taken no more than five minutes. Witnesses reported that he took off successfully and began the circuit in the normal way. However, as he approached the point where he would have turned on to the base leg, they lost sight of him. From that point on, no-one knows for certain where he went or what he did and we have to use our knowledge of Gibbs, the weather, the terrain and the aircraft to try to reconstruct what happened.
First of all, there was no moon and it was dark. Really dark. Darker than you can imagine if you live in a city. I lived in the Highlands of Scotland for more than twenty years and on a moonless night it can be almost impossible to see anything at all. I also have some experience of flying a light aircraft in the Highlands and all you would be able to see if you were flying in the dark would be the scattered lights of the few houses and the headlights of any vehicles on the road. At normal times it might also have been possible to see the navigation lights of ships on the Sound of Mull, but on Christmas Eve and with a storm approaching, there would have been few if any of these. In 1975 a pilot would know his altitude and heading, but not if he was flying over land or sea (modern displays which use GPS and other systems to show your position superimposed on a map were not available to light aircraft in 1975). Flying at an altitude of 1500 feet might mean that you were one thousand, five hundred feet above the sea or fifty feet above a 1450ft hill.
One of the things that is emphasised for new pilots when flying a circuit is that you must not lose sight of the runway. I think that it what happened to Peter Gibbs. As he turned on to the base leg of his circuit, I don’t think that he could see Grainger and her torches. Possibly these were obscured by the trees that hid him from observers at the hotel. Perhaps Gibbs had also intended to use the lights of the hotel as a visual reference to help him find the runway, but these had been turned off so that those inside could see more easily, inadvertently making his situation even more difficult. At that point, Gibbs must have realised that he was in serious trouble and that his options were limited. The Fatal Accident Enquiry suggested that he then turned on to the final leg of his circuit and crashed into the sea short of Runway 26, but for the reasons give earlier, I don’t think that’s what happened.
Oban, view looking west. The Island of Kerrera is in the foreground and Mull can be seen behind.
The only nearby town is Oban, and I think that at that point Gibbs flew towards the lights that he could see in the distance, probably trying to orient himself and perhaps considering if there was somewhere nearby where he could attempt to land. That seems to me the only solution to the light aircraft which witnesses heard over Oban on Christmas Eve sometime between 09:30 and 10:00. If Gibbs had crashed soon after take-off, then clearly his aircraft couldn’t have been heard over Oban.
As to what happened next, we have no witness reports and no clues to help us. Gibbs was lost and alone and soon after 09:45 he would have seen the first tendrils of cloud which heralded the arrival of the storm front and brought driving sleet and even less visibility. He still had around two hours of fuel left and the only logical move at this stage was for Gibbs to use his aircraft radio to declare an emergency. If he had contacted staff at the Glenforsa Hotel they might have been able to use car headlights to illuminate the runway as they had previously done for night medical evacuation flights. Though visibility was dropping so quickly that it seems unlikely that he would have been able to land safely even if this had been done. He could also have asked to have been routed to Glasgow International Airport, forty minutes flying time away and equipped with approach radar and runway lights. However, there is no record of any radio transmission being received from G-AVTN.
Was Gibbs too proud to ask for help when his own foolhardiness was the only reason for his predicament? At some point before or after flying over Oban did the aircraft suffer a technical problem which meant that he was unable to use the radio? We can’t know for certain, but I think that after leaving the vicinity of Oban, Gibbs flew West, back over the island of Mull and probably still hoping to find the runway at Glenforsa. By the time that he was back over the island deteriorating weather meant that this was impossible.
Then, I think he did just what he had told Grainger he would do. He manoeuvred as close as possible to where the thought the airfield was, slowed the aircraft as much as he could, flew as low as he dared and then he stepped out into the darkness.
The Fatal Accident Enquiry considered the idea that Gibbs might have jumped out of the aircraft but rejected this because of the lack of visible injuries on his body, but I think they were wrong to do this. Unbelievable though it sounds, there have been cases where people have jumped or fallen from aircraft with little or no injury. According to the records held by the Aircraft Crashes Record Office in Geneva, 157 people fell out of aircraft without a parachute and survived between 1940 and 2008. Forty-two of these incidents involved aircraft flying over 10,000 feet. In one well known incident, Flight Sergeant Nicholas Stephen Alkemade was tail-gunner in a Lancaster bomber on a raid over Germany in March 1944. The Lancaster was attacked by a night fighter and set on fire. The Captain ordered all crew to abandon the doomed bomber, but Alkemade discovered that his parachute, stored in the rear fuselage of the aircraft, was on fire. Faced with the choice of staying with the burning bomber or jumping to a quick death, Alkemade chose to jump at an altitude of 17,000 feet. That’s over three miles up. Incredibly, Alkemade not only survived the fall, his only injuries were bruising and a twisted knee.
So, it is possible to survive jumping from an aircraft. There are documented cases which show that it’s even possible to survive such a jump relatively uninjured even from much greater altitude that Gibbs would have done. There are also many small lochans and marshy areas in the largely uninhabited centre of Mull and the fact that the weather in Scotland had been unseasonably mild and wet in December 1975 (so that the ground soft and not frozen) meant that there were a number of places where Gibbs might have had a relatively soft landing.
Of course, he would have had to be incredibly lucky not to break any bones when he landed. But we know that it is possible. But then, his luck ran out. He would have found himself in the dark, in a storm and in one of the most inhospitable areas of the Highlands. In the centre of Mull there are no roads, no houses and no shelter of any kind. Even in daylight and reasonable weather, walking on this type of terrain is very, very tiring. On Christmas Eve 1975 the run of good weather was about to come to an end and heavy sleet was already starting to turn to snow on high ground. I believe that Gibbs started to walk and, in a grim piece of irony, reached a position where he was almost within sight of the airfield from which he started before he succumbed to cold and exhaustion.
And what about G-AVTN? I believe that it continued to fly for a short period after Gibbs had jumped and came down somewhere in Sound of Mull.
Am I certain that this is the answer? Of course not. Surviving a fall from an aircraft in flight is very unlikely, even if it is possible. But this solution does seem to fit all the known facts which none of the other theories do. It certainly accounts for the lack of traces of seawater on Gibbs’ clothing and means that we don’t have to believe that he climbed a hill after a gruelling swim or that he crossed and ignored a road on his way. And as Sherlock Holmes once said: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”
What do you think?
- A typical airfield traffic pattern (circuit)
- Runways are numbered according to their compass bearing. Each runway has two numbers which are used depending on which direction aircraft are taking off and landing. So, for example, if a runway lies on an east-west heading, it will be numbered 09 for aircraft approaching from the west on a bearing of 090° or 27 for aircraft from the east on a bearing of 270°. Glenforsa is unusual in that the runway numbers are not direct reciprocals. Runway 26 faces almost due west while the opposite end is numbered 07 and faces almost due east.
Flight Safety Foundation database entry on the loss of G-AVTN.
Flight Safety Foundation database entry on the loss of G-APAW – Gibbs’ Tiger Moth which he crashed in 1959.
Peter Gibbs Information. Details of Peter Gibbs musical career with brief mention of his disappearance. From the website of David Byers.
Once Bitten, Twice Fined, 2013, by Graeme H Pagan. Autobiography of the part-time Procurator Fiscal for Oban in 1975 who also led the Fatal Accident Enquiry into the disappearance of G-AVTN. Chapter 12, Mysteries of the Air deals with Gibbs disappearance.
The Great Mull Air Mystery, 1985, by Scott MacAdam. Very short (36 page) book giving the outline of the disappearance of G-AVTN including speculation that a third person may have been present on the runway before take-off. Published by Oban company Staffa Press and available only from the pierhead bookshop in Oban. The author’s name is a pseudonym and this book was actually written by David Howitt, one of the people who watched Gibbs take-off.
Unravelling the Great Mull Air Mystery, 2015 by Allan J. Organ. This recent book takes a more detailed look at the Mull Air Mystery and concludes that Gibbs was not flying G-AVTN when it took off.
The Great Mull Air Mystery, 2015. BBC Podcast of the episode on the Mull Air Mystery from the Radio Four Punt PI series. Includes interviews with David Howitt, Dr W.D.S. McLay, Allan Organ, Richard Grieve and Michael Gibbs, Peter Gibbs son.
The Indestructible Alkemade. Account of Nicholas Alkemede’s fall from 17,000 feet on the RAF Museum website.