Flying High

Pilot’s watches offer a big style statement while packing plenty of substance.

In pre-radar days, pilots needed a watch to navigate, time flight legs, track fuel burn, and clock overall flight time. In fact, the pilot’s watch is the reason wristwatches were invented in the first place. In 1904, Alberto Santos Dumont, a Brazilian Wright-brothers rival living in Paris, complained to his friend Louis Cartier about the difficulty of checking his pocket watch during flight. Cartier famously responded by adding a strap and buckle to his watch; thus, the modern wristwatch was born.

Today, sophisticated cockpit instrumentation has consigned the once-essential pilot’s watch to the role of style statement. Or has it? In the event of a fire in the cockpit, electrical failure, or garbled signals caused by an illicit in-flight cell phone call (they say it can happen), it’s comforting to know that modern aviator watches can still be relied upon for manual navigation. Functions typically include a chronograph, small seconds, compass, altimeter, speed indicator, and dual or world time zone indicator. Breitling produces pieces outfitted with circular slide rules, which could be used to calculate fuel consumption, air speed, and distance. Even the bold aesthetic elements of the pilot’s watch have their origins in function. The main priority for navigation is optimum legibility, so large cases, outsized numerals, and hands with thick coatings of luminescence were always standard. The huge cases had another function: the bigger the case, the bigger the movement and the balance wheel, allowing for greater precision. The large onion crowns, which are more decorative now, enabled easy grip while wearing gloves. Some modern versions also retain the old-fashioned loop-style lugs that were typically soldered onto the cases of pocket watches.

IWC Pilot's Heritage IW510401
IWC Pilot’s Heritage IW510401

Today these elements, along with the myths and vocabulary of aviation, are used to conjure the romance and adventure of early air travel. IWC, which has been making pilot watches since the 1930s, has collections named Top Gun, Spitfire, and Antoine de Saint Exupéry, after the French pilot who wrote The Little Prince. This year’s newest model, the Big Pilot’s Heritage Watch, pays tribute to the oversized cases of the brand’s early aviator watches with a 55 millimeter width. For the previous 75 years, 52mm was the largest case produced by IWC. The new watch is based on a 1940s model, with its propeller-like hands, riveted calfskin straps, beige illuminated hands against a black dial, and cone-shaped crown. The case is titanium, so it weighs only 150 grams, compared to the 180 grams of the original steel version.

Longines Original_Heritage_1918_CMYK
Longines Original Heritage 1918

Longines often invokes the name of Charles Lindbergh, with whom it collaborated in 1921 on a timepiece with a sextant and nautical almanac to calculate longitude. This year, Longines celebrates its early pilot watches with the Heritage 1918, inspired by the brand’s first bracelet-chronographs made by soldering lugs onto pocket watches and adding wrist straps. Original details include blued-steel hands with honey-colored varnish, matching numerals and strap, and a white lacquered polished dial. It contains the automatic Caliber L615 with a 42-hour power reserve.

Navitimer 1884
Navitimer 1884

Breitling, which has made watches for Britain’s Royal Air Force since 1936, is famous for the circular slide rule on the bezel of its iconic Navitimer series. The new 46mm Navitimer 1884 (named for the brand’s founding date) is a complete calendar, combining the slide rule with a pointer-type date display and twin day/month apertures. The small seconds dial at 9 o’clock doubles as a 24-hour time display. The Navitimer 1884 contains the COSC-rated Breitling Caliber 21.

Bremont Boeing 100_Front_WBG
Bremont Boeing 100

Bremont, a watch company founded by two pilots, does 20 percent of its business in military watches. This year the brand is creating a watch in partnership with Boeing to celebrate the aviation company’s 100th anniversary. It incorporates materials from Boeing planes, including a carbon fiber composite and aviation-grade titanium.

Breguet Type XXI Ref. 3817
Breguet Type XXI Ref. 3817

Breguet’s claim to aviation fame stems from Louis Charles Breguet’s invention of the gyroplane in 1907. Company founder Abraham Louis Breguet’s great-great-grandson also designed and produced several other airplanes, outfitted with precision cockpit instruments first created for his aircraft. The brand soon began  producing pilot’s watches, forerunners of today’s current standard, the Breguet Type XX collection. The new 42mm Type XXI Ref. 3817 contains the automatic Caliber 584Q/2 flyback chronograph with silicon balance spring.

Bell & Ross takes the design of its aviator watches so seriously that this year it created an aviation-inspired car for the sole purpose of inspiring its new pilot’s watch collection. “Every year, in order to create new models, I need new sources of inspiration,” says company designer and co-founder Bruno Bellamich. He calls the prototype AeroGT  an airplane-car, but this GT grand sport/fighter-jet-inspired racing car bears a striking resemblance to the Batmobile. It inspired the inclusion of a chronograph and a classic three-hand in the new BR 03 AeroGT collection, as well as a 42mm case, red-tipped hands, and lots of lume. The AeroGT car is not built yet, but two years ago, Bellamich designed a motorcycle prototype that did make it into production. The Bell & Ross B-Rocket concept motorcycle was built by Shaw Harley Davidson.  Bell & Ross BR 03 AeroGT G05-02-BR03-94-AERO-GT.tif

Motorcycles also served as inspiration for the new Zenith Heritage Pilot Café Racer, named for a motor bike used in England in the 1920s by young people who wanted to ride from café to café on the British motorways. They stripped their bikes of anything they deemed superfluous and boosted the engines for maximum power. This minimalism translates directly to the watch, paired with classic aviator codes: a large 45mm case, oversized luminescent Arabic numerals, and a wide fluted screw-lock crown. Beige luminescence stands out clearly against the dark background.  The Heritage Pilot Café Racer contains the automatic El Primero 4069 chronograph movement.

At a time when slimmed-down, classic watches are at the height of popularity, a pilot’s watch makes a statement, with useful functions and a built-in narrative. These modern versions, some of which are limited in production, are built to last—they are sure to eventually become  collectors’ pieces. In a pinch, they could also help you navigate an aircraft.  —Carol Besler