The Mysterious Disappearance at Mull

29 Apr 16 18 Comments

I have friends who live on the Isle of Mull (Scottish Hebrides) and I’ve spent a number of glorious holidays there visiting them. As a result, I was immediately intrigued when I discovered that there was a forty-year-old unsolved aviation mystery at Glenforsa Airfield (which I’ve previously written about here).

The facts of the case, such as they are known, are as follows:

G-AVTN was a Cessna F150H, a high-wing single engine aircraft which was kept at Oban on the mainland. The aircraft was on loan to the pilot, who was a 55-year-old London businessman. He flew to Glenforsa on Mull with his girlfriend and used the island as a base for exploring the other islands, apparently looking for opportunities for investment.

On the 24th of December 1975, the couple flew from Mull to the Isle of Sky and spent the day there, returning to the Glenforsa Hotel just in time for dinner.

Apparently after the meal, the pilot made the comment that he thought it would be possible to make night landings at Glenforsa. This isn’t quite as random as it sounds; if the airfield could take night flights that could increase the opportunities for travel, which would be beneficial for the hotel and other investments in the area.

But as I said, I know the island fairly well and although it has a perfectly pleasant airfield, the idea of a night landing there is, well, hard to fathom. Glenforsa is a quiet little grass strip, 780 metres (2,500 feet). We had to ring in advance to make sure the sheep were out of the way.

(This is my son who lost his high-vis jacket and is taking a nap on the taxiway. He deserves to get run over.)
(This is my son who lost his high-vis jacket and is taking a nap on the taxiway)

So on Christmas Even in 1975, the pilot announced that he was going to prove that he could do a night circuit and land it in the dark. It was a moonless night. The owner of the hotel said later that he tried to stop him. The pilot’s response, he said, was terse. “I am not asking permission, I just thought it was courtesy to let you know.”

The pilot and his companion took two torches (flashlights) to use as make-shift landing lights; she agreed to stay on the ground and use them to guide him in. Other guests at the hotel stepped out to watch and some claimed to see two sets of lights moving independently, suggesting there was someone else out there. However, the pilot’s companion was clear: she was the only one on the runway and there were no other lights other than the Cessna. The pilot taxied to the far end of the runway, stopped for a few minutes with the engine running, and then took off into the darkness. The guests watched the aircraft turn out over the Sound of Mull and then disappear from view. A pilot watching from the hotel said it was a perfect take-off. They retreated back to the warmth of the hotel.

A half an hour later, his companion returned, alone. She had not seen or heard any sign of the aircraft. The weather had turned bad: rain and sleet battered the runway. When there was still no sign of the pilot and his aircraft, they contacted the police. Volunteers and the police searched the expected flight path as far as they could that night but found no wreckage. They searched again at daybreak, hoping to find some sign of the pilot or the aircraft. Hundreds of volunteers combed the countryside and fishermen with boats searched the water for debris. The RAF and the Naval Air Service joined the search using helicopters and sonar equipment, however no trace of the wreckage was found. The pilot and the Cessna 150 had disappeared without a trace.

It was four months later when the pilot’s body was discovered, lying on a hill near the hotel and the airfield.

The discovery brought up more questions than it answered. The body was in plain sight, so it made no sense that it hadn’t been discovered as a part of the massive search effort, in which hundreds of volunteers searched the small island. Also, forensic testing showed that he had no injuries at all other than a scraped leg: the cause of death was exposure. They also found no sign of drugs or alcohol, although witnesses said they saw him drinking at the hotel. And then there was the bigger question: where was the plane?

Another decade passed before anyone reported any trace of the Cessna 150. A pair of clam divers discovered the wreckage of a red-and-white aircraft in 100 feet of water, about a mile to east of the direct approach to the runway. They took photographs which showed the aircraft in pieces: the engine was lying some distance away, one of the wheels was torn off , the front perspex windscreen was shattered and they said that both wings were missing. The clam divers said that the aircraft’s registration was G-AVTN. A local report from the time said that the doors were locked. Inside the cockpit, they said, was only a large lobster.

Now, it wouldn’t be surprising if the pilot lost sight of the airfield and flew into the sea. Taking off in the dark on a whim, after a pleasant evening in the Hotel Glensforsa, it would have been more surprising if he hadn’t crashed. But none of this explains how the pilot and his aircraft became separated.

Locals wondered if he managed to escape the aircraft before it crashed into the sea. I think this is highly unlikely. That would be pretty difficult to do in a Cessna at the best of times, let alone while the aircraft is crashing. If he could get the Cessna stable enough that he could climb out of it, he would have no need to jump. I can’t think of a way to accidentally fall out of a moving 150 unless one were wing-walking, perhaps. But even if you doubt me, there’s the fact that he had no injuries consistent with falling a few hundred feet and smacking into a hill.

He could have crawled out of the wreckage after the crash. The red-and-white aircraft was found close enough to the coast that he could have swum to shore. From there, he needed to clamber up a steep cliff wall, cross a road and then hike up the hill. The lack of injuries seems suspicious after such a violent impact, but not completely impossible. The windscreen was reported as shattered, which could have given him an escape route. The forensic tests didn’t show any sign of salt water or marine life on the corpse, but they admitted that after four months of being exposed to the weather on the hill, the evidence could have been washed away.

The odd thing here though, is that to get to the hill where his body was found, he needed to cross the road which led to the Glenforsa Hotel. Even if he wasn’t sure where the road went, surely it would make more sense to follow it than to climb up the hill?

Glenforsa Airfield by Keith Boardman
Glenforsa Airfield by Keith Boardman

In 2004, three Royal Navy minesweepers discovered an aircraft in the same underwater area. They thought it might be G-AVTN and tried to get underwater video of the wreckage. The visibility was too poor and they failed; however, the divers reported that they could clearly see that one of the wings was still attached. The weather held them back from further exploration but it brings up another possibility: the aircraft that the clam divers saw in the water was not the Cessna 150 at all. There is at least one other red-and-white aircraft known to have crashed into the sea in that area, so although the divers said they checked the registration, they may have simply been overcome with the excitement of their apparent find.

The weather stopped the Royal Navy from further exploration and so now we just don’t know: is G-AVTN submerged in the waters there or not?

If we consider that G-AVTN has not been found, then there’s another possibility. The pilot was never involved with a plane crash but instead his body was was dumped on the hillside by an unknown third-party. This could explain why the pilot was insistent on going out in the dark (to meet someone?) and why some of the guests at the hotel believed they saw more lights. It would certainly explain how the body was missed in the initial search. In this scenario, it could be that he never left Glenforsa but was overwhelmed still on the ground, or that he landed at another airfield: this would be no odder than his apparent sudden decision to go night flying just to prove that it could be done. In either instance, whoever overwhelmed the pilot could have flown the aircraft away, to be abandoned elsewhere.

None of these theories is particularly satisfying but they are likely to be all we will get unless someone decides to fund the recovery of the aircraft wreckage. At least it makes for a fascinating conversation when warm and dry in a cozy island pub.

18 Comments

  • My first thought is that the businessman may have been trying to fake his own death, perhaps to escape debts or some other personal problem. In this scenario, he first makes sure that everyone in the hotel knows that he is going to attempt a dangerous flight. It has to be at night so that no independent witnesses can get a clear look at what he is doing. He and his girlfriend then go out and hold the lights on the runway while another accomplice flies away in the Cessna. She later pretends that she was holding both lights. The accomplice lands at another airfield, cuts the aircraft into pieces and then drops them from a boat into the sea to make it look like the plane crashed.

    The businessman walks away into the darkness, heading for some pre-arranged hiding place where he will conceal himself until his accomplices can return by boat to pick him up. Perhaps he gets lost and is already dying from exposure by the time he finally reaches his hiding place. Perhaps his hiding place didn’t offer any protection from the weather, or perhaps he just failed to consider what kind of clothing he would need to survive a cold, wet night out in the open. Either way, he dies in a concealed location so that’s why the searchers don’t find his body. His accomplices later make a surreptitious return to the island to look for him, and they do find his body because they know where to look. But they can’t tell the authorities or arrange a proper burial without revealing their own roles in the plan. So they move his body to a place where it is certain to be found and then sneak away again.

    Obviously this is pure speculation, but it would explain everything.

    • Hah, you should write mystery novels, that’s tying up every loose end there!

      Interesting, the local press at the time mentions that he was found on the hillside but there was no sign of a parachute. Now, I didn’t include this because there’s no serious reference to the aircraft having a parachute in it and I wouldn’t expect the average Cessna 150 to have one in it. But of course, if there *was*, then no one would know if it had been used or was still in the unrecovered wreckage…

  • This looks like an unsolveable mystery.
    A parachute? Unlikely, unless one door had been removed first.
    Ever tried to open the door (forward hinged) of an aircraft in flight? Even if stalled, the force of the air makes it very difficult.
    The C150 is small, exit with a parachute would be difficult.

    The only way to get a handle on this would be to get Sherlock Holmes involved. Elementary, dear Watson !

    First, find out the background of the people involved. Pilot and girl friend. Criminal records ? Strange dealings ?

    The idea to go out for night landings on a dark night from a 780 m. grass strip sounds like someone who was very, very , very inebriated.

    But later found on the island, virtually uninjured?

    Were his clothes wet? If so, had they been soaked in sea water or rain?
    In other words: did he crash in the sea (the most likely scenario) managed to swim ashore and, it was December, die of hypothermia?

    The hotel manager, in my view, is culpable: When the pilot responded as he did (“I am not asking your permission”), he should have alerted the police. And what was the girl friend thinking about when she agreed to assist this mad scheme with two torches ?

    Promoting night flights with tourists? Never in a lifetime would any AOC be issued for that under the circumstances, so it sounds like the two were involved in something fishy – but not the kind that swims.

    Were they involved in some crime? Or a scheme to commit crime?

    Maybe the fairies or Scottish leprechauns were involved?

    Interesting story, Sylvia. !

    Without more evidence, the cause will probably never been solved.

  • Sorry for the uncorrected “typo” in the last line: should be “case” not “cause”.

    This gives me the chance to repeat: Why did nobody alert the police? The idea to go out for a night flight under the circumstances is too bizarrely ill-conceived to be considered other than to have been the brainchild of either someone extremely drunk or by someone who is setting up a cover for a criminal act. The response from the businessman pointed to the strong possibility of the latter.
    A hotel manager will have ample experience to judge if someone is well and truly “over the limit”.

    I have done some things in aviation that were stupid but this would have been outside even my level of incompetence at my worst. I have landed a Super Cub in the dark, on a short strip. But the runway was crossed by a road at the threshold and a rotating beacon would alert motorists that an aircraft was landing or taking off. That was turned on so I could clearly identify the runway. Aircraft that had not been pulled in the hangar had turned their rotating beacons on. And it was a clear summer’s night, CAVOK. The Super Cub could be landed and stopped in less than 100 metres. Even then it was a difficult situation. I certainly would not have considered to go for a few circuits under the circumstances that pilot was going out in.

    The idea that this strip could ever have been used for commercial transport operations, other than by twin-engine helicopter, is also an indication that there is more than meets the eye. Any licensed pilot will know that this aerodrome is not, and never will be suitable. Who would put in the multi-million pound investment to make it viable? Even if a type like a Twin Otter were approved, the changeable Scottish weather makes regular operations questionable.

    No, there was something very strange going on. And I think that if the truth be known there might well have been cause for criminal charges against the girl friend too.

  • A hotel manager will have ample experience to judge if someone is well and truly “over the limit”.

    Well, there’s no evidence that he was over the limit; in fact the forensic results on the body showed no alcohol in his system. But as that was done four months later, I have no idea how meaningful that was. One of the family at the hotel is quoted in an interview some ten years after, saying he immediately went out to listen in on the radio, ready to respond to an emergency. On a small island like Mull, I’m not sure there’d be much point in phoning the police if he was deadset on flying. I’m not sure how long it would take them to get there late at night on Christmas eve but pretty sure it wouldn’t be trivial.

    Of course, he may well have been counting on exactly that…

  • Dear Sylvia

    My other half has told me about this incident and has also flown into siad field a number of times. He did say that he would do a fly over and tghe sheep would then be moved. However ground movement could be a bit of a problem as the sheep no longer afraid of aircraft (moving or not) would simply stand there refusing to move. The only option was for the ‘farmer’ to move them before you could taxi for take-off He also mentions that when taking off you have to make a steep righ-thand turn to avoid the cliffs facing you.
    As for the tale you’ve mentioned much of which is correct according to my OH there are some misconceptions. Also as someone suggested look into the background of the pilot. My OH can say that he wasn’t a criminal as suggested. He was also a regular visitor to the field/hotel usually leaving from Glasgow Airport. But an investigation into his history will I’m sure reveal some interesting info. My OH told me he was ex-RAF

  • PS apparently his flight had nothing to do with checking to see if tourist night flights would be practible as anyone with half a brain cell knowing that field and unable to expand it because of the said cliffs and the proximity of the sea would (even if drunk) know that it would be impossible. Also it was not anything to do with scouting business opportunities. Precisly what his motives were is not known but his past employment may be a factor

  • Christine has some interesting facts that apparently eliminate some speculation and guesses. But it does not bring us closer to understanding what happened.
    I still am of the opinion that the hotel manager should have called the police. The fact that they may not have been able to prevent the pilot from taking off does not entirely absolve him.
    Tourist flights might be feasible on an incidental, day-time basis only with special STOL aircraft like a Twin Otter, but the CAA may not permit commercial operations regardless. Is it a publicly licensed strip or private only? In the west of Ireland there was a privately owned aiport at Castlebar, now closed. A Piper Aztec licensed for air taxi (public transport) operations was not allowed to use it, yet the owner kept a Citation 550 there. And even if the airport would be licensed for STOL aircraft operations, although I have never been at this particular aerodrome, I am very familiar with the weather in Ireland and Scotland and know that it can be very changeable and unpredictable, making forecasting a difficult and inaccurate science. And therefore planned operations, with or without the blessing of the CAA, can not be relied on.
    So, having comprehensively exhausted the subject of commercial operations, we are no closer to understanding what happened that night, what motivated that pilot to embark on what must have been a suicide mission nor what role the girl friend played in this saga.

    • It’s all very odd, isn’t it? I’m particularly vexed that no one seems to think it is worth recovering the wreckage, at least to find out if it is the right aircraft or not! There’s at least two single-engine red and white planes that have been lost in that area.

      The 2004 diving expedition had to give up because of the weather but seemed to say they would be back to investigate. Then I can find nothing more on the subject…

  • And my PS:
    Even people with not a whiff of a criminal record have been known to resort to very dubious activities if they are facing financial ruin, are being blackmailed or encounter some other problem that they do not know how to handle. Even a mental breakdown, or (latent) psychological problems can lead to bizarre, inexplicable actions or behaviour. People who have been confronted with a diagnosis of an incurable disease have been known to prefer suicide over a lingering death. I have first-hand experience of such a case – albeit suicide by an overdose of sleeping tablets. And even a brain tumour or onset of Alzheimer’s disease can be the cause of actions that are totally at odds with the person (patient)’s normal behavioural pattern without exhibiting direct symptoms of an illness.
    Maybe a doctor or medically qualified reader can shed some light on this possible (or impossible) aspect of this mystery?

  • Hello Sylvia,
    I don’t want to add to the speculation about this incident, just to clarify understanding about this airstrip location.
    I have landed here several times. There are no cliffs as such but there is a hill about a mile to the West and another a similar distance to the South. If taking off on 26 one does have to make a gentle turn to the right to clear high ground, alternatively one can make a slight turn left to go between the hills although that’s a direction most travellers wouldn’t find convenient. Conversely landing on 08 requires a curved approach over the village.
    The worst aspect of the location is that in many conditions of other than light winds, and especially when from the South West, random gusts coming from between said hills can make landing very tricky! It’s not unusual to find windsocks at opposite ends of the airfield pointing in opposite directions!
    In good conditions Glenforsa is a beautiful spot with a lovely adjacent welcoming hotel, hard to find in the Scottish Highlands.

    • Hi Steve!

      I wondered about the reference to him having to climb a steep cliff–that’s straight from the newspaper report at the time–and I don’t think they mean a mountain but that from the water to the shore there was sheer rock that he had to climb up, rather than a nice beach to swim to. But I agree, I don’t recall any at the airfield (the dog-leg to get into Oban, on the other hand…!)

      I am pleased to see I never saw opposing windsocks though, wow, that would be quite a sight!

  • P.S.
    I meant the Airfield/Hotel combination was hard to find, not welcoming hotels in general!
    Steve

  • I think that by far the most likely scenario was that the pilot was drunk and/or wanting to show off, took off, crashed into the sea (survivable – perhaps in a relatively gentle approach attitude), managed to escape (through the windshield?), scraping his leg on the way out, and arrived on the shore disoriented, in shock, and in the early stages of hypothermia. He may have crossed the road without really realising, or without being able to work out which way to go, and decided to climb the hill to see if he could spot the lights of the hotel. He then died on the hill and the search parties just managed to miss him – wouldn’t be the first time, and, to be fair, they might not even have looked closely at this location, as they would have been expecting to see the wreckage of the Cessna, which obviously wasn’t there.

    Very interesting – but probably less mysterious than it seems!

    (The lights discrepancy is a problem but frankly people get mixed up about such things all the time, especially in their memories – think of all the people who claim that a crashed aircraft was on fire before it crashed, or was hit by something, when it was demonstrably not).

  • I was mystified so went off to Google Earth which came about after the aircraft was lost. Using the clam divers “about a mile to the east” of the runway (26) alignment. Couldn’t spot anything at what would be 2000/3000 ft altitude. Visibility into the sea wasn’t good enough to be able to identify any submerged aircraft.

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