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The Alraigo Incident: The time a fighter jet landed on the deck of a container ship

PortandTerminal.com, July 3, 2020

HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA – On June 6th 1983, a lost British Royal Navy Sea Harrier fighter aircraft landed on the deck of a Spanish container ship in what has become known as “The Alraigo Incident”.

What happened?

HMS Illustrious was a light aircraft carrier of the Royal Navy and the second of three Invincible-class ships constructed in the late 1970s and early 1980s. She was decommissioned in 2014. In 2016 she was sold and towed to Turkish company Leyal for scrapping.

Twenty-five-year-old Sub-Lieutenant Ian Watson was a junior Royal Navy Pilot undertaking his first NATO exercise from HMS Illustrious.

Watson was launched in a pair of Harrier “Jump Jet” aircraft and tasked with locating a French aircraft carrier under combat conditions including radio-silence and radar switched off. It was his 14th sortie in the Sea Harrier vertical-takeoff-and-landing jet.

Harrier jet hoovering. Exhaust
The Harrier, informally referred to as the Harrier Jump Jet, is a family of jet-powered attack aircraft capable of vertical/short takeoff and landing operations 
Thermal image of Harrier Jet
Thermal imaging of a Harrier VTOL fighter as it hovers – the heat signature of the bottom jet nozzles are clearly visible

After completing the search, Watson attempted to return to the Illustrious but was unable to locate it. “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.

Eject or land?

Old container ship in port. Cranes.
FILE PHOTO: Spanish Container ship Alraigo (IMO 7502277)

Watson initially planned to eject in sight of the Alraigo and count on them rescuing him from the water.

With his radio not working and no way to communicate with the ship, Watson did a flyby “to get their attention.” As he flew alongside, he saw that some cargo containers formed essentially a deck, one similar to a landing pad he had used during training.  He decided not to ditch the plane and instead, land on top of the containers.

As Watson’s Harrier settled on the slick containers, it began sliding backwards. 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.

Salvage

Harrier jet on top of container ship. White van
The Harrier jet slid backwards upon landing and stuck a white delivery van as it settled. While slightly damaged, the jet was salvageable.

The captain of the Alraigo refused to let a Harrier jet landing on his ship throw him off schedule: The British government was informed that Watson and the jet would arrive in Tenerife in four days.

Upon arrival, 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” of the British jet.

After an official enquiry, it noted 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 he encountered during the incident.

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. Looking back, Watson says that the media attention embarrassed Royal Navy brass and lead to his punishment. He refuses to blame the Navy though – “It was me,” he says. “I was there and that’s where it should stop.”

Watson’s Sea Harrier jet was converted to the FA2 variant in 1992 and retired from service 20 September 2003. The aircraft is now on display at Newark Air Museum in Nottinghamshire England.

Watch

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