A brass plaque by Glenforsa Airfield gate reads:
"Built by the Royal Engineers between May and August 1965
15 Field Park Squadron, 38 Engineer Regiment."
Built to complement the small cottage hospital in Salen, its main reason was to act as Mull's only fixed-wing air ambulance evacuation facility. Since its inception, David Howitt and his family, who then owned the adjacent Glenforsa Hotel, operated it first of all for the Argyll County Council, then the Strathclyde Regional Council, then the Argyll & Bute Council, then until March 31st 2015.
Since 1966, an average of one patient a month had been airlifted from the strip, mainly by Britten-Norman Islander aircraft operated by Loganair pilots, and daytime Scottish Air Ambulance helicopters. Night time evacuations by Navy Sea Kings have frequently taken place, and in all, over 400 patients have been airlifted from Mull.
For twelve years the airfield was licensed by the Civil Aviation Authority when Loganair operated a daily summer service from Glasgow to North Connel (Oban), Coll, and Mull. The improved ferry sailings from Oban to Mull - six daily - probably contributed to the termination of the air service in 1980.
Many people, however, still remember that half-hour trip to Glasgow above the stunning mountains of Argyll, in the ultra-safe hands of Captains Duncan Macintosh, Jim Lee, Geoff Rosenbloom, Ken Foster, and Ben Thomas. Piper Aztecs gave way to Islanders, then Skyvans and Trislanders, with the occasional Twin Otter, but the old BN2 outlasted them all for sheer rugged efficiency and safety in all kinds of weather.
With an average of five hundred visiting light aircraft yearly, the highlight is the annual Mull Air Rally - (the 47th will occur in 2013). Sometimes as many as 150 aircraft arrive over that Bank Holiday weekend at the end of May (see the "Fly-in" page for updated information on PPR and frequencies).
As for name-dropping, some of the famous (and discriminating) air visitors to Mull have included Ted Dexter, Russell Harty, Robert Wagner, David Coulthard, Winnie Ewing, Donald Sutherland, Dave Gilmour, Phil Collins, and Tom Cruise, to name but a few. A celebrity incident which David doesn't mention above is the time when Sir Hugh Fraser of Harrods fame turned up with several men in a helicopter, they all jumped out, and the aircraft went off somewhere else. Old "Fa" Howitt demanded a landing fee, and they refused to pay on the grounds that the aircraft hadn't actually touched down. Finally it was settled when Sir Hugh bought doubles for everyone in the bar.
A strange event took place on Christmas Eve 1975 that has become known as the Great Mull Air Mystery. Why on that evening after dinner, with his girlfriend and a bottle of wine, did hotel guest Peter Gibbs decide to take off and do a night circuit in a Cessna C150 G-AVTN? Why did his aircraft vanish and his corpse turn up several months later 400ft up a hill within a couple of miles of the hotel?
Local writer Scott MacAdam has published a slim volume giving the facts about this extraordinary happening. The event also inspired a surreal novel, These Demented Lands, by Oban author Alan Warner, in which the Glenforsa appears transparently disguised as the Drome Hotel. Click here to read an excerpt from the book. Alan Warner has embroidered the Peter Gibbs tragedy to the extent of having two aircraft doing night circuits in opposite directions and colliding.
For years after the tragedy, wild rumours abounded as to Peter Gibbs' motive in performing this apparently insane act. It was speculated that he was an agent of MI5, doing cloak-and-dagger work in Northern Ireland. He succeeded in flying over there, but his cover was broken and the terrorists (or whoever) murdered him, brought the body back, and dumped it on the hill as a grim warning to his superiors.
The body was not discovered till the following April. According to the pathologists' report as quoted in Scott MacAdam's book, its condition was " ... entirely consistent with lying out there for a period of four months." Also, there had been a huge land/air search of the area in the days following the disappearance which also drew a blank.
One wonders how much experience the pathologists had of bodies exposed for such periods. Supposing they had reported that its condition was not consistent with this period of exposure, what would the repercussions have been? Best to give the expected answer and allow the whole tragic affair to be quietly forgotten.
Also, forensic tests detected no salt or marine organisms in the body's clothing and boots. If he had crashed into the sea and swum ashore, some traces would remain in spite of heavy winter rainfall. But then, if he had crashed into the sea and was uninjured to the extent of being able to swim ashore, why would he cross the main road and stumble 400ft up the hill to die of exposure, when all he had to do was to follow the road back to the Hotel?
However, in September 1986, a clam diver working in the Sound of Mull, at a depth of some 100 feet, nearly a mile to the east on a direct approach to the (then) RWY26, discovered the wreckage of a light aircraft. But, instead of resolving the matter once and for all, the disposition of the aircraft indicated a considerable impact. The wings were found some distance away from the fuselage and both doors were still in the locked position. Escape from the aircraft could only have been through the shattered front perspex with a high likelihood of injury. The only occupant in the cockpit was a large lobster!
Speculation aside, the fact remains that the pilot performed an act of extreme foolhardiness; the motive for the flight will remain, perhaps forever unknown to us.
The original Glenforsa Hotel seen above was unfortunately burnt down in 1968, and the Howitt family replaced it with the present log-cabin-style building, which was imported in kit form from Norway and assembled on site. It is very well insulated, as one would expect from Scandinavia, and must be one of the most comfortable buildings on the Island. The timber is thoroughly fire-proofed.
Given the local topography, and even more, the local climate, it is not surprising that Glenforsa has had its share of 'incidents', or 'prangs', to use old RAF slang. A considerable number of these were caused by sheer pilot stupidity, such as running out of fuel for which there is no excuse whatsoever. One such pilot nearly made it to the runway, but took an unexpected early bath!
We are pleased to report that in the entire history of Glenforsa to date, there have been no fatalities or severe injuries actually on the airfield; though there have been several tragedies involving aircraft on their way to or from Mull. In almost every case, the weather was responsible. Let us hope that this record can be maintained. The general availability of GPS is a great contribution to air safety.
In another case of running out of fuel, the pilot of a Tiger Moth (who happened to be a brain surgeon) managed to get it down on a gravel track running up the glen.
A local landowner (above) once decided to try landing a Partenavia P68 on one of his own fields. Unfortunately, he did not check the state of the surface beforehand. It must have been after a spell of exceptionally wet weather. The ruts show that it must have made a record short landing distance for the type!
Glenforsa Airfield can accommodate most light aircraft with up to four seats. Full flight information can be obtained from the usual Flight Guides (Pooley's / AFE, etc.) Mull Self Drive can arrange car hire at a discounted rate for pilots (see tab above).
With its present 780-metre grass strip, Glenforsa cannot take heavy aircraft or jets and there would seem to be little chance that the Council will extend the runway and tarmac it - and perhaps a good thing too! The newly re-surfaced runway at Oban can cater for more exotic aircraft! At present there is no hangarage or covered accommodation for aircraft at Glenforsa.
All photos © David Howitt unless otherwise stated.