Twenty-five years ago last June, the Spanish container ship Alraigo was steaming off the coast of Portugal on its way to Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Not far away, aboard the British aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, which was participating in a NATO exercise, 25-year-old Sub-Lieutenant Ian “Soapy” Watson was preparing for his 14th sortie in the Sea Harrier vertical-takeoff-and-landing jet. Watson was paired with a more senior pilot in another Harrier and ordered to find a French aircraft carrier. Simulating combat conditions, the two departed under radio silence and with radar off. They split up when they reached their search area, climbed to assigned altitude, turned on their radar, and swept separate zones.
Search completed, Watson descended and headed to the point where he was to rejoin the flight leader. When the leader didn’t show, Watson relied on his inertial navigation system to get him back to the Illustrious. “I went through everything I had in the airplane to help me,” he said. “I tried the radio. I had the radar on. I squawked emergency. Absolutely nothing. There were no returns on the radar.”
Knowing that shipping lanes lay off the coast, Watson turned east. When his radar began showing a target, Watson turned toward it. At 50 miles out, running low on fuel, he was down to only a few minutes of flight time. At 12 miles, Watson caught sight of the Alraigo. His plan was to make sure the ship saw him and then eject.
With no way to communicate with the ship, Watson did a flyby “to get their attention.” As he flew alongside, Watson saw that some cargo containers formed essentially a deck, one similar to a landing pad he had used during training. “Well, I thought, in for a penny, in for a pound, and I landed the airplane on the containers.”
As Sea Harrier ZA 176 settled on the slick containers, it began sliding backward. Watson tried to retract the landing gear. The main gear dropped off the back edge of the container. A delivery van on the ship, en route to a florist shop in Tenerife, suffered a blow as the rear of the Sea Harrier hit the deck. The captain of the Alraigo refused to let the drop-in visitor throw him off schedule: The British government was informed that Watson and the jet would arrive in Tenerife in four days.
When the Alraigo, with the jet atop the containers, docked at Santa Cruz de Tenerife, a horde of reporters was on hand. The ship’s crew and owners filed a salvage claim and were awarded some £570,000 ($1.14 million at the time) as compensation for the “rescue.” When Watson returned to the Illustrious, a Board of Inquiry essentially did nothing. But when the Illustrious returned to port, Watson underwent a second Board of Inquiry.
In 2007, Britain’s National Archives released a number of Royal Navy files, and the second inquiry report was finally made public. Noting that Watson had completed only 75 percent of his training before he had been sent to sea, the board blamed Watson’s inexperience, and his commanders for assigning him an airplane “not fully prepared for the sortie,” a reference to radio problems. Nonetheless, Watson was reprimanded and given a desk job.
Watson eventually acquired 2,000 hours in Sea Harriers and another 900 in F/A-18s before resigning his commission in 1996. Today, he says that media attention embarrassed Royal Navy brass and caused the punishment, but refuses to point fingers. “It was me,” he says. “I was there and that’s where it should stop.”