Pilot Watches

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About Pilot Watches

Once used by aviators as a tool during flight, today pilot’s watches are worn generally as a style statement rather than an aviation aid. The pilot watch genre spans several different styles and can draw design cues from different eras of aviation history, including the pioneering years at the turn of the 20th century, the military needs of the World Wars, and the postwar boom of commercial aviation. While defining what exactly constitutes a pilot’s watch today can be tricky given all the different styles, what ties these timepieces together is that they were specifically developed for airmen.    

History of Pilot Watches

Alberto Santos-Dumont was a Brazilian aviator living in Paris and is considered to be one of the most significant pioneers of flight. Alberto Santos-Dumont remarked to his friend Louis Cartier that it was cumbersome to operate a pocket watch when he was flying, as he needed to have his hands on the controls. So Louis Cartier took up the challenge and presented a wristwatch for Alberto Santos-Dumont in 1904—a novel idea during the era when men carried pocket watches. Not only was this square Cartier watch the world’s first pilot’s watch but it was also the first timepiece developed explicitly as a wristwatch for men. The Cartier Santos-Dumont watch eventually became available to the public in 1911. 

In 1909, Frenchman Louis Blériot became the first person to fly over the English Channel and on his wrist was a watch created by Zenith. The Zenith watch was characteristic of pilot’s watches of the era with a chrome-plated case for durability, a black dial with oversized Arabic numerals and hands for legibility, and a big onion-shaped winding crown for ease of use while wearing gloves. Three years after his historic flight, Louis Blériot commented: “I am extremely satisfied with the Zenith watch, which I use regularly, and cannot recommend it highly enough to people in search of precision.” This endorsement clearly established Zenith as a trusted name to make aviation instruments, and in the late 1930s, the French military outsourced the manufacturing of aircraft clocks—called Type 20 Montre d’Aéronef—to the watchmaker. 

During World War I (1914 – 1918), the British Army required timepieces for their military pilots to keep track of fuel consumption. The first batch of these pocket watches was labeled as Mark IV A and these were predominately made by the Smith Watch Company. The following series of RFC/RNAS military pocket watches were labeled Mark V and were made by Doxa, Invicta, Omega, Zenith, and others. These timepieces included dials with large details for readability and plenty of luminescence for nighttime legibility. German fighter pilots, on the other hand, wore pocket watches suspended from their suits, which were fitted with inverted dials for easier reading.  

Charles Lindbergh completed the first ever solo non stop flight across the Atlantic in 1927. He then collaborated with Longines to develop the Hour Angle watch to calculate longitude during flight.

In 1936, IWC made its first “Special Pilot’s Watch” at the request of one of the company owner’s sons who was a pilot. The watch sported a large case, which housed a black dial with oversized hands and indexes. The dial was protected by a shatterproof glass and the movement was antimagnetic. A particularly interesting design component of the IWC was the rotating bezel with an arrowhead index that could be used to record takeoff times. 

In 1938, Breitling established the Huit Aviation Department to produce plane dashboard clocks and aviator wrist chronographs—just in time for the impending Second World War.  

World War II (1939 – 1945) saw the demand for military pilot watches rise again and each country had its own set of requirements. The British outsourced their “W.W.W.” (Wrist. Watch. Waterproof) pieces to Buren, Cyma, Eterna, Grana, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Lemania, Longines, IWC, Omega, Record, Timor, and Vertex. Breitling onboard clocks and chronographs were fitted into the cockpits of British Royal Air Force fighter planes. The Americans had A-11 watches supplied by Bulova, Elgin, Hamilton, and Waltham. The German Flieger/ B-Uhren watches were manufactured by A. Lange & Söhne, IWC, Laco, Stowa, and Wempe. 

The postwar era witnessed great advancements in the pilot watch field. Breitling introduced the Navitimer watch in 1952 with a slide rule bezel for pilots to compute complicated calculations for navigational purposes. In the 1950s, the French government needed aviation watches called Type 20 and Type 21, with requirements such as flyback chronograph, accuracy rating within eight seconds a day, and more than 35 hours of power reserve. One of the suppliers of these Type 20/21 chronographs was Breguet.   

In 1955, the Rolex released the GMT-Master watch specifically for Pan Am pilots to keep track of two time zones while on the job. Reference time (aka Greenwich Mean Time) was read via the traditional hour and minute hands while local time could be read via a 24-hour hand pointing to a rotating bezel marked to 24 hours. 

From this point onwards, several of the watchmakers we mentioned above continued to develop their pilot watch models and collections. And many of these same brands are behind today’s most popular pilot watches.  

Popular Luxury Pilot Watch Models

Today, some of the most popular high-end pilot watches are made by the likes of Rolex, Breitling, IWC, and Zenith. There are also younger brands such as Bell & Ross and Bremont that make pilot watches. While not typically categorized as pilot’s watches by today’s standards, Cartier still manufactures the Santos watch collection, complete with modern features such as a practical strap switching system and in-house movements.

One of the most coveted modern pilot’s watch models in the current market is the Rolex GMT-Master II, which can now indicate three time zones rather than just two of the earlier GMT-Master references. Since 2005, Rolex GMT-Master II watches feature ceramic bezels (instead of aluminum ones), available in a range of colors including the ever-popular red and blue “Pepsi” and the black and blue “Batman” color combinations. There are stainless steel, yellow gold, white gold, Everose gold, and two-tone steel and gold versions of the GMT-Master II. In 2018, Rolex revamped the GMT-Master II lineup with new-generation movement, slightly redesigned cases, and the re-introduction of the Jubilee bracelet into the pilot watch collection. 

IWC makes a large variety of aviator watches including the Pilot’s Watch and the Big Pilot’s Watch collections. Most of these popular watches draw design cues from the vintage IWC pilot watches, particularly from the WWII era. Within the IWC aviation watches, there are special editions like the “Top Gun” watches in honor of the US Navy flight school and the “Le Petit Prince” watches dedicated to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s renowned novella. 

Breitling is also known for their large lineup of aviator chronographs including the iconic Navitimer, the sporty Chronomat, and the robust Avenger. What’s more, Breitling recently unveiled the Aviator 8 collection, which houses watches inspired from the early days of the Huit Aviation Department.  

Zenith also continues to make pilot watches, having launched its modern collection in 2012 including the release of the gigantic Pilot Montre d’Aéronef Type 20, based on the aircraft clocks from the 1930s. The vintage-inspired Zenith Pilot watch collection features models like the Pilot Type 20 Chronograph, Pilot Type 20 Extra Special, and the Pilot Cronometro Tipo CP-2 Flyback—a revival of famous Zenith Cairelli model made for the Italian military in the 1960s.  

The history of horology is inextricably linked to the evolution of aviation, which has paved the way for a vast assortment of pilot watches to enjoy today. Whether vintage-inspired air force timepieces, mid-century style pilot watches, or modern aviator chronographs, the pilot watch genre has plenty to offer for current watch enthusiasts.