The incident occurred in June 1983, when NATO countries were staging an exercise in the North Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Portugal.
Meanwhile, sailing in the vicinity of the exercise, there was a container vessel – called the “Alraigo” – which was registered in Spain. It was en route to the capital of the Canary Islands, Tenerife, with a load of cargo in its containers.
Having completed his assignment, Watson dropped to a lower altitude and decided that he would have to make his way 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.
Watson made a close fly-past to attract the attention of the crew of the container ship. As he did this, he noticed that the containers effectively formed a platform large enough for him to attempt to land upon, and without further ado, he approached for a landing. He managed to set the Sea Harrier down on to the containers, but once stationary, the aircraft began to slip backwards. This continued until the rear end of the aircraft slipped right off the edge and came to rest on a van parked behind the container.
The owners of the Alraigo, claimed the jet aircraft as salvage and they were awarded around £570,000.
Ian Watson faced a formal enquiry on board the Illustrious when he returned there. However, both that and a second one released no report. It was only when some Royal Navy archives were opened in 2007 that the findings were revealed. They found that Watson had only completed three-quarters of his training. They found him partly to blame for flying under these conditions, but they also found his commanding officers to blame for allowing him to fly in an aircraft that had not been properly prepared.