Soapy's Flight

On May 6th, 1983; Sub Lieutenant Ian "Soapy" Watson was operating off the coast of Portugal. Watson was launched with one other aircraft tasked with locating a French aircraft carrier under combat conditions including radio silence and radar switched off. "Soapy" was a junior Royal Navy Pilot undertaking his first NATO exercise.

After completing his patrol, "Soapy" flew to a pre arranged rendezvous point with his flight lead. When Watson relized the Lead was nowhere in sight, he turned towards Invincible expecting to pick it up on the radar; when unable to locate the carrier he broke radio silence and made a radio transmission. Unable to transmit or receive, he realized his radio was unserviceable, and his NAVHARS - Inertial Navigation System had failed in taking him back to the expected Invisible's location.

As his fuel load dwindled, and the Sea Harrier began to run on vapours, Watson vectored the aircraft Eastbound towards the closest commercial shipping lane, and made radar contact with a surface vessel at 50 miles. At 12 miles he made visual contact with a ship. It was a container ship called, Alraigo. At this point, "Soapy" was planning to eject in sight of the vessel hoping for a rescue by the ships crew.

After performing an initial flyby of the Alraigo, Watson noticed the ship was carrying numerous flat topped containers similar in size to the RAF practice landing pad. The container was carrying a base plate for a telescope being delivered to the La Palma Observatory in the Canary Islands. Watson then decided to land his Sea Harrier on top of the shipping container with only a few minutes of fuel time remaining.

As his aircraft touched down on top of the Telescope container, the aircraft began to slide backwards on the ocean water coated surface. Watson attempted to pull the landing gear to arrest the slide but was not successful in stopping it. The aircraft slid backwards off the container and ended up sitting upon the roof of a van parked on the deck. The van partially held up the fuselage and arrested the aircraft backward movement.

Four days later amid considerable international media presence, the Alraigo sailed into Santa Cruz de Tenerife with its new cargo load, a Sea Harrier till perched on its makeshift landing pad. The aircraft was salvageable, and the ship's crew and owners were awarded £570,000 in compensation.

Sea Harrier ZA176 was converted to the FA2 variant in 1992 and retired from service September 20, 2003. The aircraft can now be seen on display at Newark Air Museum in Nottinghamshire England in its FA2 configuration





  • IW


  • Bob Lawson

    This called one hairy landing—Well done mate!

Leave a comment