The Great Mull Air MysteryThe skies have always beckoned to us. We wish to fly up within the clouds and the clear blue yonder, to untie the tethers that bind us to land. It is a primal desire, this wish to rise up into the vast skies above our heads and to soar to wherever the wind may take us. Yet this is not always a friendly domain for us. Aviation and mankind’s reach into the stratosphere are home to some of the greatest mysteries and sinister disappearances history has to offer. Here among the clouds are tales of intrigue, mystery, and unexplained vanishings that have managed to perplex us to no end. Certainly one of the most baffling enigmas of modern aviation concerns a flight undertaken under strange circumstances, and which would become one of the most oft discussed and puzzling unexplained disappearances of our time. It would come to be known as the Great Mull Air Mystery, and it is a tale that surely proves that sometimes the skies are not friendly, and that tragedy that may never be fully explained can strike at any time, leaving us to ponder just what has happened and indeed our place in the grand scheme of things.
The mystery in question revolves around a man by the name of Peter Gibbs, who had served in World War II from January 1944 to March 1945 in the 41 Squadron of the Royal Air Force. Gibbs had a rather unmemorable military career and was best known for his post RAF music career, when he became a member of the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1954 and went on to join the prestigious London Symphony Orchestra. Even then, his musical career was rather unassuming except for his infamous public verbal attack on the world famous conductor, Herbert von Karajan, who was rather notorious for leaving the stage after shows without waiting for applause or ever taking requests for an encore, a slight which annoyed Gibbs to no end. One night Von Karajan did this again and the next evening Gibbs gave him a dressing down in front of everyone, fuming “I did not spend four years of my life fighting bastards like you to be insulted before our own Allies as you did last evening.” It was a shocking statement that would ruin his career in music and at the same time become what he was most known for up to that point. Sadly, what Gibbs would ultimately become most famous for was the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death.
After the incident with Von Karajan, Gibbs faded into relative obscurity until one Christmas Eve in 1975, when he was having dinner with his girlfriend, Felicity Granger, at the Glen Forsa hotel on the Isle of Mull, in Scotland, after returning from inspecting property on the nearby Isle of Skye. At the time Gibbs was the managing director of a property-development company called Gibbs and Rae, and he had been looking to invest in buying a hotel there. After dinner, Gibbs suddenly announced that he wanted to go out flying a plane for rent, a red-and-white Cessna F150H, that was kept at the adjacent airfield. The desire to go flying was not strange in and of itself, as Gibbs had been flying privately ever since leaving the RAF after the war, and he even owned his own plane, but it was a little strange that he should want to suddenly go out flying alone in the black of night on a whim after having a dinner date with his girlfriend. The hotel staff was not in agreement with Gibbs’ plan, especially since the airfield did not allow night flights and was not even equipped with landing lights. On top of that, it was a rather dark and moonless night at the time, and the staff implored him not to go. Nevertheless, Gibbs was adamant about going out flying, and reportedly told the staff “I am not asking permission, I just thought it was courtesy to let you know. I don’t want a fuss.”
With his girlfriend in tow, Gibbs headed to the airfield at around 9:30 PM and told Granger to light up the end of the runway by hand with bright torches, which considering the clear skies he was confident would be adequate to light his way and give him a frame of reference with which to safely take off. This would later pose its own mystery, as several witnesses would later claim that there had been two sets of torches moving independently, suggesting more than one person guiding the plane, but Granger would always claim it had been only her out on the runway. Before taking off, Gibbs informed Granger that he would return shortly, after which he roared off into the night sky. One witness to the takeoff, a David Howitt, who watched from the nearby hotel with binoculars, would later say that it had been flawless, with no signs of any engine trouble or difficulty as the plane shot off into the night. Gibbs would never be seen alive again.
When 10PM came and went with no sign of the plane returning, a concerned Granger went back to the hotel to inform staff that Gibbs was missing. By this time, the weather had taken a turn for the worse and it was sleeting heavily outside, but the staff called police, who went out to inspect the airfield for any signs of trouble, of which they found none. The projected flight path was also inspected, but there were no signs of anything amiss. The following day, on Christmas, Gibbs still had not returned, and a major search of the area was launched involving many RAF and Naval Air Service helicopters, sonar equipment to look for wreckage on the seafloor, and hundreds of volunteers. The massive search effort scoured the countryside of the small island and large swaths of the surrounding sea, yet not a single trace of Gibbs or the Cessna he had been flying could be found. He had seemingly just vanished off the face of the earth.
That seems like it would be the last anyone would hear of Gibbs, but the real mystery was only just beginning. In April 1975, a full 4 months after the disappearance, a local shepherd by the name of Donald MacKinnon made a shocking discovery on a hillside a mere mile from the hotel and airfield. There, sprawled out in full view upon the ground, about 400 feet up the hill, was the body of the missing Gibbs, wearing boots and fully clothed. Authorities were puzzled by the find, as the body was discovered in an area that had been totally searched in the wake of Gibbs’ disappearance, and no local farmers or shepherds in the area had seen anything out of the ordinary there in the proceeding months despite frequenting the area regularly.
At first it was thought that Gibbs had simply crashed into the sea and somehow managed to swim to shore and go on to die of exposure, but there was no evidence of seawater or any marine organisms found on the body or the clothes or boots. Additionally, the position of the body on the hillside would have meant that Gibbs would have had to have crawled from the sea, clamber up a steep cliff wall, cross the road leading to the hotel, and then climb 400 feet up the hillside on his own. Why would he do that if he had just crashed and was dying? It was also suggested that he may have somehow fallen out of the plane or parachuted out with a malfunctioning parachute, but the body also showed no serious signs of injury, with only a minor cut on the leg and certainly none that would be consistent with a high speed, life threatening impact. There was additionally no sign of a parachute at the scene or anywhere in the vicinity. In fact, the body was in remarkably good condition for having apparently lain on the hillside out in the elements for 4 months, showing little decomposition and being relatively free of damage from scavengers, although it was ascertained by an in-depth autopsy that Gibbs had indeed been dead for 4 months. A toxicological test further revealed no traces of alcohol, drugs or poisons in the body. The stumped pathologists would ultimately decide that the cause of death had been exposure, suggesting that he had exited the plane somehow and died on land, but there was still no sign of the aircraft or even any wreckage from it anywhere, and the body itself posed more questions than it answered.
Adding further layers to the shadows embracing the mystery was that there was absolutely no sign of the aircraft Gibbs had been flying, which would have been a major piece of the puzzle. Considering that the body had been found on land and showed absolutely no evidence of having been in the sea at any point, it was thought that the plane had to be somewhere nearby, yet there was no trace of it anywhere. The mystery of the missing plane would hang over the case for 11 years, until September 1986, when two clam fishermen from Mull by the names of Richard and John Grieve discovered a red and white aircraft on the seabed in 100 feet of water around half a kilometer off the coast of Oban. The two divers claimed that the plane was a Cessna and that it bore the registration G-AVTN, the very same that Gibbs’ aircraft had had. The divers reported that they had examined the plane and could find no human remains in the plane. It was also reported that the plane exhibited signs of a massive impact, with both of its wings and one of its landing wheels torn completely off and strewn about the seafloor, as well as a gaping hole in the windshield. The aircraft’s engine had also apparently been dislodged by the impact and thrown a significant distance away from the plane itself. An odd little detail is that it was claimed that both doors of the plane had been locked from the inside, meaning anyone who had been in the plane when it had crashed would have had to have exited through the hole in the windshield.
Unfortunately, although the report by the divers was considered credible, the wreckage itself was never recovered, nor could it even be relocated, and all that remained as evidence were some pictures of the wreck that were too blurry to confirm or deny the divers’ accounts. It could also not be ascertained from the photos whether the crash could have been survivable, although some experts claimed that anyone in the plane would have been at the very least severely injured, which is not consistent with the relatively uninjured state of Gibbs’ corpse. In the end, the discovery of this wreckage only served to deepen the mystery of the case, and it was and still is uncertain whether this was even really Peter Gibbs’ plane at all.
So many questions orbit this case which have never been satisfactorily been answered. Why did Gibbs decide to go out flying that fateful evening even in such unfavorable night conditions? Was there only one person guiding him with torches, as Granger claimed, or were there more, as claimed by other witnesses? If there had been another third party on the runway, then who were they and why were they there? Why is it that Gibbs’ body was found 4 months later on a nearby hillside in an area that had already been heavily searched and which was frequently passed by farmers and shepherds? How did he get there and how did he die? How had Gibbs become separated from his aircraft? Indeed, what exactly happened after the plane took off?
With so many unanswered questions and disparate pieces of weird evidence, as well as the odd condition of the body and uncertain details about the plane, it is only natural that speculation has swirled around the case for years, ranging from the somewhat plausible to the absurd. The seemingly most obvious solution, at least on the surface, which is that Gibbs had either crashed his plane into the sea or bailed out before impact, doesn’t seem to fit considering factors such as the condition of the body and the lack of any seawater or other marine evidence upon it. Also, the area is so hilly that it would have been very unlikely for him to have maneuvered there at a low enough altitude to jump out without considerable injury and without crashing, and if he had managed to parachute from the plane successfully, then where did the parachute go? Also, how could he have exited the plane, only for it to continue barreling along on its own without a pilot to crash into the sea some distance away and then somehow during that time lock its own doors? There is also the fact that even if Gibbs had indeed really crashed into the sea and improbably crawled from the twisted wreckage to swim half a kilometer in freezing water to safety, why would he willingly cross and pass the road leading to the hotel where he could be rescued only to continue 400 feet up a hillside to die? Indeed, how could he have survived such a catastrophic crash in the first place and where was the seawater and injuries one would expect if this were the case? Very little of this theory seems to make sense.
Another theory is that Gibbs had been killed in cold blood and his body dumped on the hillside, possibly due to some sort of criminal activity or a business transaction gone wrong. There have been claims that Gibbs had been involved in gun running and even a diamond heist in Oban, as well as rumors that he may have perhaps been involved in some shady business practices, so it seems as though there could have theoretically been a motive to do such a thing. However, there are many things wrong with this idea as well. Since the plane was a one-seater, it seems unlikely that anyone could have been aboard the plane with Gibbs at the time to kill him and then take control of the aircraft, and even if they could have pulled that off, they would have had to have somehow killed him in such a way as to leave no serious injuries on the body and make it look like had had died of exposure as per the coroner’s report. The murder theory is somewhat supported in a sense by an odd detail given by a witness that said that the plane on the night in question had taken an unusually long time to warm up on the runway, suggesting that Gibbs was perhaps either distracted or talking to someone before takeoff, who would not have been Granger standing with the torches far down the runway. It was also claimed that the lane lights on the plane flashed more times than usual before the plane took off, suggesting a struggle, an unfamiliarity with the plane, or that at least things weren’t going according to plan.
A permutation of the murder theory is that it wasn’t even Gibbs who had been at the controls of the plane, nor was he even on it, and that someone could have planted a decoy on the plane and then killed him on the ground. This idea seems to be bolstered by the claims of two sets of torches being used on the runway on the night of the disappearance, which could mean someone else was there to participate in the crime. However, if that was the case, then why would the plane end up crashed and destroyed at sea? Why would they destroy the plane, and if it was an unintentional crash then where is the body of the decoy? Someone could have feasibly intentionally crashed the plane to make it look like it had been an accident, but how did they pull it off? If it was intentional, why were both doors locked from the inside? Did they intentionally go down with it in a harrowing crash and crawl out the hole in the windshield? It doesn’t make sense. And then the body again. We are still left with the question of why Gibbs’ body would appear on a hillside 4 months after the disappearance. If someone could successfully hide the body for 4 months, then why suddenly dump it out on the hill for everyone to see after authorities had resigned themselves to the fact that Gibbs had simply vanished into thin air? There seems to be little to be gained from doing such a thing. A murderer would have also still had to have killed Gibbs in such a way as to not damage the body and make it seem as though he had died of exposure.
Still other theories abound, most of them facing the same problems, and few of them making much sense. One is that Gibbs was involved in a smuggling operation and wasn’t on the plane but rather waiting on the hillside for the package to arrive when he had died of exposure. In another, Gibbs himself orchestrated the crash in order to fake his own death and escape some debt or business dealing, but that he was finally tracked down and killed, with his body dumped on the hill to serve as a warning to his business partners. Still others say that Granger had arranged for Gibbs to be murdered, that he was shot from the sky by terrorists, that he was an MI5 spy on a mission to Northern Ireland and was killed and dumped as a warning, or that he was even abducted by aliens, because when a case is this weird why not? The relatively pristine condition of the body certainly lends itself to the idea that it had not sat out in the elements for the entire time between the disappearance and its discovery, implying it might have been dumped there at a later time. Yet in all of these scenarios, since the body was found upon examination to have in fact been physically been dead for those 4 months, anyone who killed him had to have waited all of that time with a corpse before dumping the body. Why would they do that?
For all of these theories and all of this rampant speculation, the question of what happened to Peter Gibbs remains just as unsolved and mysterious as it ever was. If the wreck of the plane could be recovered from the sea and closely examined we might be able to shed more light on the case, but so far it remains missing, with only the photos and accounts from the divers who claimed to have found it to go on. In 2013, Royal Navy warships found wreckage of a mystery aircraft believed to be a Cessna lying in 30 meters of water during a coastal mapping operation off Oban, in the same general area where the divers had claimed to have found the plane previously. However, the Navy images show that the mystery wreck in this case still had one wing intact rather than missing both, a discrepancy that casts doubt on whether it is the same plane and further making it unclear if they are the same wreck, two different wrecks, or whether it or they are even Gibbs’ plane in the first place.
The Great Mull Air Mystery has become one of aviation’s most puzzling conundrums, baffling both experts and conspiracy theorists alike. It has inspired curiosity, discussion, debate, and much theorizing. Yet in the absence of any good further evidence, it seems unlikely we will ever truly know the answers to any of the case’s confounding array of questions. What happened to Peter Gibbs on that fateful night? Do the answers lie out there at the bottom of the ocean somewhere, scattered across the island, or are they lost to time and forever out of our reach? The mystery remains.