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The Day A Royal Navy Pilot Landed On A Spanish Container Ship

Over three decades ago, one of the more unusual events to involve HMS Illustrious - and indeed, the Royal Navy - took place...

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Photo courtesy of JF Aleman-Canary Islands Spotting, via aviationcorner.net
 
Over three decades ago, one of the more unusual events to involve HMS Illustrious - and indeed, the Royal Navy - took place.
 
On June 7th, 1983 (not May 6th, as has been incorrectly recorded on some websites), a Royal Navy Sea Harrier set off from 'Lusty', which was operating off the coast of Portugal, in what was later to become known as the 'Alraigo Incident'.
 
At the helm was 25-year-old Sub Lieutenant Ian "Soapy" Watson, a junior Royal Navy pilot undertaking his first NATO exercise, and his 14th sortie in the jet.
 
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HMS Illustrious in Amsterdam in 2009
 
Watson was launched in a pair of Sea Harriers, along with a more senior pilot, and ordered to find a French aircraft carrier under combat conditions, including in radio-silence and with radar switched off.
 
After splitting up to undertake the search, he flew to an arranged meeting point with his flight leader - but the other aircraft didn't appear. At this point, Watson turned towards Illustrious, expecting to see her on the jet's radar, but again, was not in luck.
 
After making a radio transmission and not receiving a response, Watson realised his radio wasn't working, and that his inertial navigation system hadn't taken him back to his expected location for landing. The Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine quotes him as saying:
"I went through everything I had in the airplane to help me. I tried the radio. I had the radar on. I squawked emergency. Absolutely nothing. There were no returns on the radar."
As the aircraft began to run low on fuel, Watson turned it East towards a known shipping lane, and saw a container ship, the Alraigo, on his radar 50 miles away.
 
Flying towards the vessel, he made visual contact when 12 miles away, initially planning to eject while in sight of it.
 
But after performing an initial fly-by, he noticed that the ship was carrying a number of flat-topped containers similar in size to a practice landing pad - which presented an opportunity (Alraigo had been delivering a base plate for a telescope to a Tenerife observatory). He later explained:
"Well, I thought, in for a penny, in for a pound."
So Watson flew back towards the ship. At this point, the Sea Harrier's vertical landing capability came into play (see below).
 
Watson ended up landing the Sea Harrier on top of a shipping container with just minutes of flight time to spare - but not without incident. 
 
The aircraft began to slide backwards on the wet surface as he touched down, with a source telling Forces TV the captain of the Alraigo may have panicked at the last minute, jolting the ship as the plane landed and thus causing the slide.
 
An Indian Navy Sea Harrier performing a vertical landing on INS Viraat, formerly HMS Hermes
 
In the end, a humble van saved the day, which had been on its way to a florist shop in Tenerife.
 
After Watson's attempts to retract the landing gear to stop the slide failed, the jet slipped backwards off the container onto the roof of a van parked on deck. It was the van that ultimately propped up the fuselage, preventing a further slide.
 
Then, the pilot and British government had to sit and wait. The captain of the Alraigo wasn't going to let the incident get in the way of business - so the British government was informed that Watson and the jet would arrive in Tenerife four days later.
 
They were met by a veritable media scrum, who witnessed the ship sail into dock at Santa Cruz de Tenerife with the Sea Harrier still sitting on its container. 
 
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Two Royal Navy British Aerospace Sea Harriers, similar to the incident aircraft, approaching a US aircraft carrier's flight deck
 
The Alraigo's crew and owners were awarded £570,000 compensation, while the aircraft was salvageable.
 
There had been fears that the Spanish government might refuse to return the aircraft because of the territorial dispute over Gibraltar, but thankfully for Britain, this wasn't to be case.
 
In fact, it carried on to serve until 2003, after being converted to the FA2 variant in 1992. It's now on display at Newark Air Museum in Nottinghamshire, in this configuration (see below).
 
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Picture: Howard Heeley, Newark Air Museum
 
As for Watson, no action was taken against him on returning to Illustrious. But when the ship returned to port, the pilot underwent a second Board of Inquiry, the details of which were released by the National Archives in 2007 along with a number of other Royal Navy files.
 
Watson's inexperience was blamed for the incident, and although it was noted that he had only completed 75% of his training before being sent to sea, and his commanders had assigned him an airplane 'not fully prepared for the sortie', ie without a functioning radio, he was reprimanded and given a desk job.
 
RoyalNavySeaHarrierAlraigoIncidentNow2Att.jpg
Picture: Howard Heeley, Newark Air Museum
 
In the end, the pilot clocked up 2,000 hours in Sea Harriers and another 900 in F/A-18s before resigning his commission in 1996. 
 
He says he suspects his punishment was caused by Royal Navy brass having been embarrassed by the media attention, but has refused to point fingers. He explained:
"It was me. I was there and that’s where it should stop."