Andrew James John Mackenzie
an historiography
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Safe Landing, Strange Salvage


One particularly unusual maritime event occurred in June 1983, during which NATO was undertaking various exercises in the North Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Portugal, including aircraft carrier, HMS Illustrious, and her fleet of aircraft. Two Sea Harrier VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) jet fighters were ordered to take off and search for a French ship in the vicinity. However, one of the pilots was a relatively inexperienced sub-lieutenant aged 25, named Ian Watson. This was further complicated in that both aircraft had to maintain radio silence, replicating wartime conditions. Watson ran into difficulty, however, resulting in one of the more remarkable air to sea landings in recent military history – on the deck of a passing containership.

Whilst these maritime exercises were being undertaken, container vessel, Alraigo, under a Spanish flag, was en route to the capital of the Canary Islands, Tenerife, with a load of cargo in its containers.

Meanwhile, Watson dropped to a lower altitude and flew to the area where he intended to rendezvous with the other, senior pilot. When his colleague failed to appear, Watson decided to fly 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. Fuel became an issue, however, and Watson realised that he would have to eject and ditch the aircraft and planned to execute this action near to one of the vessels in a nearby shipping lane so that they could rescue him. Noticing the flat surface of the containers on the vessel, Watson signaled to the Alraigo and undertook the procedure to land vertically straight on top of them. 

The action was successful, albeit dramatic, as the craft slipped backwards, landing on an adjacent parked florists’ van



Although there was much insistence to the contrary, the Spanish Master of the containership continued his voyage, with possession of the aircraft under the ancient maritime law of salvage, and eventually arrived in the Canaries, much to the Royal Navy’s embarrassment.

Indeed, Watson, after a major Naval enquiry, became deskbound for a time following the incident. Although it was revealed subsequently in 2007 that Watson had had insufficient training in the operation and use of this type of aircraft and was deemed not 100% at fault.

Amazingly, the containership vessel itself sought and won a salvage award of £570,000 from the Ministry of Defence for safe disposal and salvage of the aircraft in what has been an especially unique example of seamanship.

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.

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