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The Strange Death Of Peter Gibbs



In December of 1975, a light aircraft took off from the western Scotland on a recreational flight, but it did not return. And when evidence was eventually uncovered about the loss of both the plane and its pilot, it raised more questions than answers. In this post, we try to unravel the strange death of Peter Gibbs.



The Origins of Peter Gibbs


Between 1944 and 1945, pilots of the Royal Air Force's 41 squadron participated in some of the most dangerous air engagements of World War Two. Equipped with the most recently upgraded model of the Supermarine Spitfire, the British aviators were involved in a series of high-profile missions against German targets, repeatedly putting their lives on the line in the hopes of bringing an end to the conflict. Having spent a lengthy period of time acting as escort fighters for the waves of American bombers, which were laying waste to the urban and industrial targets in the heart of the Reich, 41 Squadron were temporarily transferred to cover the Allied landings on D-Day, before being urgently tasked with defending London from Hitler's new V1 flying bombs.


They would see out the war having participated in the ill-fated Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands, before conducting ground attacks in support of the invasion of Germany. Amongst their number throughout this tempestuous period was a 24 year old pilot named Peter Gibbs. Like many of his comrades, he was released from service with the RAF at the end of hostilities, but this did not prevent him from pursuing his dreams. In due course, he went on to obtain his private pilot's license and would spend the next 20 years taking to the skies as a member of the Surrey Flying Club.


As well as his passion for aviation, Gibbs was also a keen musician and was sufficiently skilled to earn membership at the London Symphony Orchestra for a time. But alongside his musical talents, it became clear that the former airman's wartime exploits had left him with something of a reckless and confrontational streak. During the orchestra's tour of the United States in 1956, he was involved in a very public altercation with its conductor. Following a performance in Boston, Herbert Von Karajan had chosen to depart from the stage without waiting for applause or performing an encore.


His actions were perceived as both rude and insulting to the performers, and when he arrived for a rehearsal the next day, Gibbs immediately drew a halt to proceedings. He demanded an apology from Von Karajan, adding "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". Whilst the conductor refused to be drawn into the confrontation, he immediately made it clear to the orchestra's managers that he would no longer perform whilst the former RAF pilot was a member.


The result was inevitable, with Gibbs being asked to leave and the tour continuing without him. In the aftermath of the incident, he would become the managing director of his own property company, but this stubborn side to his personality would eventually resurfaced leading to the most tragic of outcomes. In December 1975, Gibbs began a relationship with a 32 year old University lecturer by the name of Felicity Granger. He had been looking to purchase properties up in Scotland to add to his growing business portfolio and so decided to mix business with pleasure and asked her to join him on a scouting trip to the region.


Granger had readily agreed and on Saturday the 20th of that month, the two arrived at the Glenforsa hotel, on the Isle of Mull. The presence of a private airstrip in the grounds of the resort was surely no small factor in Gibb's selection of the hotel as his base of operations. The 780 meter runway, which had been constructed there by the Royal Engineers in 1965, served a dual purpose. As well as being the only fixed wing evacuation facility serving the island, it also doubled up as a takeoff and landing site for a Cessna F150 H, which belonged to the Glenforsa's owner, David Howett.




Dealing with the Glenforsa's owner


Within hours of his arrival, the charismatic Gibbs charmed Howett with stories of his wartime career, persuading the hotel owner to permit him use of the aircraft over the weekend. When Howett asked Gibbs if he had brought his pilot's license along with him on the trip, Gibbs made the excuse that he had left it behind in London. It had, in fact, expired quite some time before their encounter. Gibbs spent the following week using the aircraft to visit properties on the various Islands located in the region.


On the evening of Wednesday the 24th of December, he and Granger landed back at the Glenforsa, having returned from viewing a property on the Isle of Skye. During the course of their evening meal, other guests at the hotel recalled seeing the couple drinking red wine with Gibbs ordering several additional glasses of whiskey. A short time later, Gibbs went across to the reception desk and asked to borrow a pair of high-powered torches. When asked what they were needed for, the charismatic pilot told the clerk that he intended to take the Cessna up for a night flight. When the staff member protested, Gibbs replied, "I am not asking permission. I just thought it was courtesy to let you know. I don't want a fuss."


Through a combination of charm and passive bullying, Gibbs persuaded the man to hand over the torches and then made his way outside. As other guests began to congregate on the patio, wondering what was going on, he handed the torches to Granger and asked her to use them to guide him down when he returned. He then kissed her goodbye before heading off down the runway towards the waiting aircraft. Minutes later, the onlookers heard the airplane's engine roaring to life, before it took off disappearing over the tree line that marks the end of the unlit airstrip.


As the sounds of the aircraft's engine faded away, Granger activated the two torches, shining the powerful beams up into the skies overhead. The staff on duty inside the hotel also took the liberty of turning off the lights in the bar to help the guests get a better view of the Cessna as it came back in to land. Two minutes gradually turned into 10 and then into a further 20, before Granger returned to be onlookers in a state of confusion.


As fears grew that Gibbs may have become lost and ditched in the sea, all the hotel's lights were turned back on and a number of guests set off in their cars to check the nearby coves and beaches. After it became clear that there was no trace of Gibbs or the Cessna, the authorities were called.



The Search and the Investigation


Christmas Day dawned on the Isle of Mull with helicopters from both the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force combing the waters around the island in search of the missing aircraft. As the day wore on, the weather conditions gradually deteriorated with a heavy storm blanketing the region. Eventually, having found no trace of any wreckage, the search was called off. It would be another four long months before Gibbs was seen again.



Finding Gibbs' body


In April of 1976, a local Shepherd named Donald McKinnon was moving his heard through the hills, approximately a mile north of the Glenforsa hotel. Just up ahead, he could see a large larch tree which had apparently being toppled. As he came closer, he realized that there was something protruding from between the broken branches. It was the lifeless body of Peter Gibbs.


The pilot's remains were wedged so firmly in the midst of the fallen tree that the attending police officers were forced to cut away several branches before they could release it. They were perplexed to find that it was in remarkably good condition, with few signs of decay and no obvious marks or injuries. Even more confusing, the larch tree was within an area which had been searched repeatedly during the last few months. Of the Cessna itself, there was no sign and another decade would pass before it too was finally located.


In September of 1986, a pair of divers found the aircraft sitting on the seabed, approximately half a mile off the coast of Oban. It was badly damaged, having lost a wing and most of its landing gear with a large hole smashed in the windscreen. Images of the wreckage taken by the Royal Navy in 2013 revealed that both cockpit doors were still locked and secured, only adding to the mystery of how Gibbs had come to be found outside the aircraft.


Analysis of the remains of Peter Gibbs did little to assist the official investigation into the incident. His body was found facing in the direction of the Glenforsa, indicating he had perhaps been traveling downhill at the time he had passed away. Other than a small cut to his leg, they were no significant injuries and there was an inexplicable lack of animal predation. Forensic tests showed no sign of the salt and marine organisms that would be expected from a cadaver which had been immersed in seawater, with the pathologist deciding to cite exposure as the most likely cause of death.


With the evidence indicating that he had not pitched in the water and then swum back to shore, it was suggested that Gibbs may have bailed out over dry land and then passed away whilst making his way back to the hotel on foot. But the fact that the area had been repeatedly searched by the authorities and was situated on the daily routes of local farmers and shepherds raised the issue of why he had not been found during the four months that had elapsed since his disappearance.


He was not wearing a parachute when he was found, and none have ever been located anywhere on the island in the year since the incident. The fact that the Cessna doors were subsequently found to be locked and secured also seems to detract from the idea that he had bailed out. The damage to the windscreen was almost certainly caused when the plane had impacted the water, so just how did he manage to exit the aircraft?


The Cessna's final resting place only serves to add more confusion to the mystery as Oban lies roughly 21 miles to the east of the Glenforsa hotel. How had the doomed aircraft continued to fly for such a distance if Gibbs had been absent from the controls? And if he had been inside at the point of impact, why would he swim all the way back to the Isle of Mull instead of the Mainland which was much closer? And if that was the case, why was there no trace of marine biology on his body or clothing?



Other Similarities


Some commentators believe that the case is remarkably similar to the disappearance of Frederick Valentich off the coast of Melbourne in October of 1978. The Australian pilot was also flying a Cessna Aircraft during a nighttime training flight and reported being pursued by an unidentified flying object. Radio operators then heard a mysterious metallic scraping sound before his transmission went dead. Neither he nor his aircraft were ever seen again.


Some believe that Gibbs was targeted by extraterrestrial visitors, who encountered him flying in the skies above Western Scotland, and then somehow removed him from the aircraft. It is assumed that they then unceremoniously deposited his body back on the ground four months later. In reality however, there are probably far more rational explanations. Fred Valentich was inexperienced and unqualified to be flying at the time of his disappearance and despite his reports of a UFO in the vicinity, it has always been suggested that he in fact became disorientated and crashed. Similarly, Gibbs had lied about his qualifications and was intoxicated at the time of his disappearance, increasing the likelihood that it was his own actions that caused his death.


Another proposal which has been suggested is that he was the victim of foul play. Some witnesses on the evening reported having seen two sets of torches being used on the runway rather than just the pair being held by Granger. Is it possible that Gibbs was murdered on the ground before he even managed to get into the Cessna? Whilst not impossible, this explanation would require multiple offenders, someone to remove and deposit the body and another to then fly and ditch the aircraft.


Some believe that Gibb's killer or killers may have already been concealed inside the Cessna itself. At some point during the flight, this assailant either murdered him or forced him out of the plane before ditching the Cessna, and swimming to the coast in order to escape. Again, these arguments are possible, but hinge on the murderer surviving the crash and then smashing his way out of the sinking aircraft, rather than via the cockpit doors and it doesn't take into account the freezing cold waters.



Conclusion


In truth, there is no comfortable or fully convincing explanation for how Peter Gibbs came to die. But the reality is that no other party was considered during the investigation. Terrestrial or otherwise. Felicity Granger told the police that before he had taken off, he had assured her that in the event of an emergency, he would ditch the aircraft and make his way back to her and in all likelihood, that is exactly what he did.


With limited visibility and under the influence of the alcohol he had consumed during his evening meal, it would have been difficult for the pilot to know exactly where he was or to distinguish between the land and the Sea. Having set the controls of the Cessna to continue on its way, it is possible that he flew low to the ground bailing out over what he believed to be water only to discover that he was still over dry land. Any parachute he had been wearing may have been discarded when he landed and blown off into the sea, but most likely he had not been wearing one, and in a twist of fate, the provider of his salvation might also have been the mechanism of his demise.


The Larch tree that cushioned his fall may have saved him from a sudden and horrific death, but simultaneously trapped him inside it. Hidden from view, he died from exposure, only to be found when the tree collapsed several months later. With the controls somehow set and locked in place, the Cessna continued on the course that has been set, eventually crashing into the sea. In regards to the doors being locked, this could have happened when they slammed shut behind Gibbs as he left the cockpit. Or perhaps this aspect is nothing more than spurious information, added to sensationalize the story as it has been retold through the years.


While this theory manages to explain away most of the complexities in the death of Peter Gibbs, it Is by no means watertight and hinges on a series of unlikely factors. Perhaps it is completely wrong and the strong willed businessman was indeed the victim of Foul Play. Without further analysis of the plane that sits on the seabed off the Scottish Coast or a closer inspection of the post-mortem report, the answer to the Great Mull Air mystery will continue to elude us.

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