The oceans and skies have continually, since the inception of time itself, fascinated mankind. The lure of the unknown worlds above and below us, has always been too intense to ignore. As time continues its march forward, we also continue to go higher and deeper than we ever imagined, in such a relatively short time. And as always is the case with mankind, wherever we go, we feel the need to know the time, henceforth man has worked hard to perfect watches destined for what lies below the waves and constructed specific “tools” for that world. The same attention has been given, for many decades now, to the watches that are brethren in the skies adorn, to mark the beginning and ending of their time in the skies above us. Even though, as it is with dive watches, pilot watches, in reality, became obsolete as a flight or dive tool after the advent of computer aided diving and flying. But the mystic of a simpler, hardier time, still resonates with watch collectors the world over. Over the last few years Swiss watch companies have seen a real surge in the buyer’s desire for pilot styled watches and have responded loud and clear with all major brands having some type of pilot, or at least a multiple time zone watch, in their collections.
Winged flight had only recently been developed when aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont relayed to his good friend Louis Cartier in 1904 concerns he had about timekeeping in the air. Since Santos-Dumont required both his hands to control the aircraft, it was difficult for him to check the time on his pocket watch. Therefore, he needed something he could check at a glance and his friend Louis Cartier came through for him, with the first pilot’s wristwatch in 1906. It had absolutely no attributes of what we know today as a pilot watch, past, or present. It wasn’t until Louis Bleriot flew his Bleriot XI Monoplane across the English Channel in 1909 with a Zenith watch strapped to his wrist, that the DNA of pilot’s watch was boldly presented to the world. And those attributes are still evident in today’s offerings. Attributes such as big, clean, uncluttered dials, with oversized Arabic numerals for optimum legibility, onion crowns for setting of time with flight gloves on, along with extra-long straps enabling pilots to wear their watches over their flight suits. With many early models, the case could be attached to the instrument panel making them a multi-faceted tool.
So, let’s take a look at what I consider to be a good representation of “real” pilot’s watches, with the attributes from a time when a pilot watch, was as important, as the aircraft itself.
1. Breitling Navitimer
One of the most recognized pilots watches in the world was released in 1952 by Breitling. The Navitimer, which was also recognized the same year, by the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association as a “pilot’s watch”, is highly recognizable with its iconic slide rule bezel combined with an inner rotating bezel capable of calculating, multiplication, division, calculation of ground speed, miles per minute, gas consumption as well as, climb and descend rates. The scale has three important units, Stat for standard miles, KM for kilometers and Naut for nautical miles. After many milestones, models, and at times misadventures, Breitling finally came out with an in-house movement, the Breitling 01 an automatic chronograph with integrated architecture, a column wheel mechanism and a chronometer certification, as has every Breitling movement since 1999. The 60th anniversary of the Navitimer arrived in 2012 with the release of the Blue-Sky model, a limited production of just 500 pieces celebrating, what from a versatility standpoint, may be THE pilots watch, even though it’s dial is far from uncluttered. It is impossible not to include the Breitling Navitimer amongst great pilot watches.
The Rolex GMT or Greenwich Mean Time, was originally designed in 1954 in conjunction with Pan Am Airways. The company wanted a watch with 2 times zones to issue to crew members on the Transatlantic flight routes which they were quickly opening up. And so was born the reference 6542. The original GMT Master ref.6542 watch has a 24-hour display fourth hand complication directly linked to and displaying the same time zone as the standard 12-hour hand. This enables flight crews to set the watch to GMT or another time zone, and, using the rotatable 24-hour scale bezel, set to the correct offset, a second-time zone could be read. In 1981, a new ref. 16750 was introduced with a hacking option and quickset hour hand. Although the original was conceived as a functional work watch Rolex has been making steel and gold and all gold versions since the fifties. In 2005 the 50th anniversary edition saw more technical changes such as Rolex’s patented Parachrom hairspring, the larger Triplock crown, a larger case and ceramic bezel which now accompany the Rolex GMT II. But through all the technical and cosmetic changes to the GMT, it still exudes the spirit of a work watch as you stare at the simple four-handed dial and harken back to the days of early commercial air travel.
3. I.W.C. Big Pilot
Early in aviation’s history, International Watch Co. focused on developing pilot’s watches. In 1936, under the guidance of then owner Ernest Homberger and his two sons who were all passionate about aviation, I.W.C. introduced their first special watch for pilots. It contained IWC’s caliber 83 movement, a shatterproof crystal, high contrast hands and numbers, a rotating bezel to record short periods of time an antimagnetic escapement along with the ability to withstand temperature swings from -40 degrees Celsius to + 40 degrees Celsius. The Big Pilot 1940 came in at a whopping 55 mm, the ultimate in a legible pilot’s watch. The I.W.C Mark 11 first manufactured in 1948 is the most well-known of the pilots watch’s from I.W.C and was initially produced for the Royal Air Force and used by them for over thirty years. In the early nineties, IWC began expanding on their pilot’s line and in 2007 introduced their Big Pilot Top Gun Double Chrono model, named after San Diego’s Naval Air Station Miramar’s, United States Navy Fighter Weapons School or TOPGUN, made famous in the movie of the same name starring Tom Cruise. This collection alone has grown to boast five models within itself. The Big Pilot series adheres to the ascetics and feel of the earlier versions with their large clean dials and legibility remaining a key factor in their design.
4. Bell & Ross
Not all brands offering pilot watches are mired in history dating back two world wars. Bell & Ross is one such company. Started in 1993 by Swiss designer Bruno Belamich and French businessman Carlos A. Rosillo, formerly a watch designer and aeronautical control panel specialist, respectively, they have been working under the guidelines of efficiency, legibility and reliability to create a unique watch brand, with professional use by pilots, astronauts, divers and bomb disposal teams, as inspiration for their designs. Their past lives in the aeronautical instrument fields shows in the shape and design of their watches. While mimicking aeronautical instruments, such as the gyrocompass, anemometer, along with airspeed and vertical speed indicator, legibility, which is a pilot watch staple, is evident on all models. It all began with the BR-01 Compass in 2005, followed by the BR-01 Radar, BR-01 Horizon, BR-01 Altimeter, BR-01 Turn Coordinator, culminating with the BR-01 Hyper stellar sporting a skeletonized dial which still retains the legibility the company strives for. By the model names alone you can discern Bell & Ross’s mindset.
Zenith has been making pilot watches since aviation’s infancy. When French aviator Louis Bleriot flew across the English Channel in 1909 he had on his wrist, a Zenith pilot’s watch, and so began the company’s long history as a maker of aviation timepieces and instruments, including altimeters and stopwatches. Bleriot’s watch was typical of the era, with a chrome plated case, black enamel dial, large Arabic numbers, cathedral hands and the ever-present onion crown, for use with a pilot’s gloves. Today’s Zenith pilot watches offer all the modern technological advances of the industry, but from 10 feet away, you would think time has stood still, as they have not strayed far from their design roots. Zenith’s Pilot Type 20 Chrono Extra Special comes fitted inside a 45mm bronze case powered by the El Primero Column Wheel Chronograph movement. The Zenith Pilot Ton-Up comes in a aged stainless case. Zenith uses a special chrome treatment and hand finishing to achieve the look of an era gone by. Many companies making pilot’s watches in the early days used chrome plated stainless steel. Zenith achieves that look without the problems you can encounter later in life with chrome plating. Simple is more on these Zenith pilot’s watches.
While these five pilot watches standout in my mind, there are a myriad of other companies producing quality travel timepieces, with a penchant for retaining the glory days, when air travel was in its infancy and it had no idea where it was going, or where it would end up.