The Great Mull Air Mystery is the name given by the media to the disappearance of Peter Gibbs on 24 December 1975 after he took an unscheduled solo night flight. Gibbs’ uninjured body was discovered, without the plane, on a hillside four months later but how and why he came to be there has never been established.
Norman Peter Gibbs was a former Spitfire pilot with No. 41 Squadron RAF. Flight Officer Peter Gibbs served with 41 Squadron between January 1944 and March 1945.
In August 1945, after he left the RAF, Gibbs became a professional musician and joined the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1954. In 1956, he had joined the London Symphony Orchestra.) Gibb’s tenure with the orchestra is notable for an incident which occurred during a tour of the United States in 1956. The Orchestra felt conductor Herbert von Karajan had been unprofessional when conducting smaller concerts during the tour.
The last straw came when von Karajan left the stage in Boston after the last note was played, neither waiting for applause nor calls for an encore. The orchestra was upset by this apparent slight to both them and the audience, but turned up nonetheless on time for an early rehearsal the next day. Karajan, however, came in late, much to the disgruntlement of the whole orchestra. When he finally arrived Gibbs stood up and addressed Karajan directly, demanding an apology. He rebuked von Karajan, stating, “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.” Karajan ignored him and continued conducting as if nothing had happened, however, that night during a concert, Karajan refused to go back on stage after the interval until a letter was signed stating that Gibbs be immediately sacked. The orchestra’s managers had little choice but to comply and Gibbs never played with the Philharmonia again.
Gibbs joined the Surrey Flying Club in June 1957 and then flew regularly for the next 18 years. He continued to fly in his civilian life and had held a private pilot’s licence and had over 2,000 hours flight experience. In later life Gibbs became the managing director of a property development company called Gibbs and Rae. Gibbs was 55 at the time of the disappearance and resided in London, England.
The Isle of Mull
On Saturday 20 December 1975 Gibbs travelled to the Isle of Mull, in the inner Hebrides, Scotland via ferry as he was interested in buying a hotel as an investment. Gibbs arrived on Mull with girlfriend Felicity Grainger, a 32-year-old university lecturer.
The couple were using the Glenforsa Hotel, on the edge of the sound of Mull, as their base as the hotel had its own 780 m airstrip and there were using a plane to fly between the Inner Hebridean islands. The couple were staying in room 14 and the hotel was busy despite it being winter.
Glenforsa Airfield was built by the Royal Engineers between May and August 1965 to act as the only fixed-wing air ambulance evacuation facility on Mull. The airstrip is grass and at that time had no runway lights.
Peter also refused to use any landing lights, and he completely ignored local regulations that banned flying at night. Instead, he asked Felicity to stand on the airstrip with a torch to guide himself back to the hangar.
Day of the disappearance
On the morning of 24 December 1975 Gibbs and Grainger flew the from Mull to Broadford on the Isle of Skye to spend the day viewing properties. They flew back to Mull and had a dinner at the hotel that included whisky and red wine.
Gibbs and Grainger had just finished dinner at the hotel when Gibbs decided to take a solo flight. Gibbs borrowed two powerful torches to use as landing lights for Grainger to use them to guide him in.
Some guests present stated that they though they saw two people moving torches on runway, others observed that Gibbs appeared to have spent an unusually long time warming up the plane’s engine. Gibbs was observed to turn the plane lights off, then on, then off again. He then took off from the unlit airfield on a moonless night and, after the plane disappeared behind a line of trees, he was never seen alive again.
The hotel guests realised that Gibbs was intent on making a circuit and rushed upstairs to the bar to watch the landing as the airfield was almost never used at night. The guests turned the lights off in the bar to reduce internal reflections on the glass and get better view of the night flight. Grainger stood at the end of the runway holding the torches.
After 10 minutes Howitt began to worry, fearing that the plane had ditched, and went to try to find the plane. He drove to hotel’s Ford Cortina through the driving sleet to try to find Gibbs. Howitt dipped the cars headlights to illuminate the water but no trace of the plane was seen.
An organised search was mounted but no trace was found of Gibbs or the plane. The search was described as huge and extended over the Christmas holiday.
Discovery of the body
In April 1976, 4 months after the disappearance, Gibb’s body was discovered by a local shepherd, Donald MacKinnon. The body was found lying partway up a remote hillside about a mile from Glenforsa Airfield. The initial search for Gibbs had passed through this area at the time of the disappearance, but nothing had been found at that time.
The body was found lying across a fallen larch tree 400 ft up the hillside, not far from the road. Due to decomposition the only thing holding the body together was the clothing. The body was facing due north in a direction that indicated that Gibbs was walking down hill. The police had to cut a branch off the tree to remove the body.
The body was taken to Glasgow for the post-mortem. Gibb’s remains gave no clues to his cause of death. Only minor injuries were found and there was nothing to indicate a fall from a plane or any evidence that he died in other place and was left on the tree. According to the pathologists’ report the condition of the body was ‘entirely consistent with lying out there for a period of four months’. Forensic tests detected no salt or marine organisms in the Gibb’s clothing or boots. Gibb’s death was noted down by the pathologist as being due to exposure in the absence of any other evidence.
The discovery of body sent investigators looking for the plane on land, in woods and dragging lochs. No wreckage was found of the aircraft at that time.
Apparent discovery of the plane
In September 1986 it was claimed that the plane had been found in the sea off Oban. A clam diver searching for scollops reported finding a small plane with both wings missing. The wreckage was 200–300 m off the coast at the bottom of the sound of mull It was reported that the windscreen was out and both doors were locked. The aircraft yielded no clues as to how it came to be there. Gibb’s body was found in a location that was across a road and up a steep climb from the reported location of the plane.
In February 2004 minesweepers HMS Pembroke, HMS Penzance and HMS Inverness were undertaking a coastal mapping operation in the waters off Oban and found a plane 30 m beneath the surface. HMS Pembroke used a remote underwater camera to take pictures of the wreckage which appeared to be of a small plane with one wing still attached, possibly Gibb’s Cessna, .