An unusual incident involving a container ship and an aircraft from a nearby aircraft carrier occurred in June 1983, when NATO countries were staging an exercise in the North Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Portugal. Among the ships taking part was the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, which after 32 years service has recently been decommissioned.
As part of the exercise, two Sea Harrier VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) jet fighters were ordered to take off from the “Illustrious” and seek out a French naval carrier. One of the pilots was a relatively inexperienced sub-lieutenant aged 25, Ian Watson, popularly known as “Soapy.” The other pilot was more experienced. Because the exercises were simulating war conditions, the two pilots had to maintain radio silence and keep their radars turned off.
After take-off, the two aircraft went their separate ways. They ascended to a fixed altitude and then surveyed the sea below, looking for the French vessel.
Meanwhile, sailing in the vicinity of the exercise, there was a container vessel – called the “Alraigo” – which was registered in Spain. It was en route to the capital of the Canary Islands, Tenerife, with a load of cargo in its containers.
Having completed his assignment, Watson dropped to a lower altitude and flew to the area where he intended to rendezvous with the more senior pilot. However, the other aircraft failed to materialise. Watson decided that he would have to make his way back to the Illustrious on his own. He turned on his radar and radio and used all the instruments at his disposal to navigate back, but he received no signals at all in return.
By this time, Watson was getting a bit worried about the level of fuel in his aircraft and the presence of nearby shipping lanes. He flew eastward until he picked up a blip on his radar. It turned out to be the Alraigo. With very little fuel left, he realised he would have to eject and ditch the aircraft; he planned to do this near the ship he was approaching, so that they could rescue him.
Watson made a close fly-past to attract the attention of the crew of the container ship. As he did this, he noticed that the containers effectively formed a platform large enough for him to attempt to land upon.
Thinking “in for a penny, in for a pound” and without further ado, he approached for a landing. He managed to set the Sea Harrier down on to the containers, but once stationary, the aircraft began to slip backwards. This continued until the rear end of the aircraft slipped right off the edge and came to rest on a van parked behind the container. The van was supposed to be delivered to a florist working in Tenerife.
The master of the Spanish container ship insisted on continuing on his way to the Canaries. He radioed to the British government that they would have to collect the sub-lieutenant in Tenerife. When they docked there, they were met by many press photographers. The owners of the Alraigo, claimed the jet aircraft as salvage and they were awarded around £570,000.
Ian Watson faced a formal enquiry on board the Illustrious when he returned there. However, both that and a second one released no report. It was only when some Royal Navy archives were opened in 2007 that the findings were revealed. They found that Watson had only completed three-quarters of his training. They found him partly to blame for flying under these conditions, but they also found his commanding officers to blame for allowing him to fly in an aircraft that had not been properly prepared.
Watson was confined to a desk for a while afterwards, but eventually, he accumulated over 2000 flying hours, in Harriers and over 900 in other aircraft. He is sanguine now when he looks back and acknowledges the embarrassment caused to the Royal Navy, accepting that he was the main culprit in this unusual event.