The Long-Distance Voyager

Breitling’s Navitimer remains a necessity for pilots across the globe.

A watch can only become a design icon by surviving the test of time. There are quite a few modern watches that have inherited their name or style from previous iterations; however, their original purpose has become as outdated and useless as an overworn strap. The Breitling Navitimer challenges this by being more than just a paragon of design. Although it may have had its raison d’être in a previous decade, it continues its legacy as a functional heritage timepiece by remaining as relevant to pilots as ever.

The timepiece is as pertinent today as it was in the 1950s because pilots still require a backup navigation system. If all other instruments fail in the cockpit, including the flight computer, how else can the necessary calculations be made to measure the required distance for a safe landing? In fact, slide-rule training is still required at modern-day flight schools.

Breitling Navitimer Caliber 01

The Navitimer—with its chronograph functions and slide rule on the bezel—has become the necessary in-flight backup plan. The watch contains both the timer needed to calculate flight length and the slide rule functions to calculate distance parameters for navigation. The name of the watch was taken from the two main functions for which the instrument would be used: “navi,” for navigation, and “timer,” for timing.

The Navitimer was the brilliant idea of Willy Breitling, Leon Breitling’s son, and then the company’s CEO, and Marcel Robert, a watchmaker at Breitling with a keen interest in mathematics who eventually became technical director at Breitling’s La Chaux de Fonds factory. Breitling already had a sliding scale on its Chronomat watch. The Chronomat was a mix of chronograph and math. The basic slide rule on the Chronomat could handle multiplication, division, and simple scaling. The real limitation was that while intuitive to operate, it did require the bezel to be turned every time a new calculation was required (even if nearly all elements remained the same). The Navitimer revolutionized this by observing how a log-scale operates along a slide rule.l1010900

The solution was to invert the outer scale so that the two logarithmic scales ran parallel in a clockwise direction. Then, scales were added to aid the pilot in flight: STAT for statute miles, KM for kilometers, and NAUT for nautical miles (knots). Because of the commutative property of multiplication, the parallel running log scales now allowed not only one multiplication of two numbers, but all possible combinations on the scale.  With the three scales the pilot could convert the computation of one number. For example, nautical miles could be converted into kilometers and statute miles at a glance. The watch allowed the pilot to complete all pre-flight calculations and in-flight navigation: average speed, distance covered, fuel consumption, and rate of climb or descent. In short, it was the definitive instrument for the professional pilot.

In 1952, Breitling introduced the reference 806, a chronograph watch with a sliding bezel reference. It wasn’t until 1954 before the watch was made available to the public. Breitling had been producing both chronographs with sliding scales and cockpit instruments for decades before the end of the 1940s. However, without the use of logarithms, the calculations would remain basic. Logarithmic scales allow base numbers to be scaled and raised to powers repeatedly multiplied. Hence, around the periphery of the Navitimer is a rotating bezel that contains a functional circular slide rule—a calculation tool that existed in a pre-electronic calculator world. The particular slide rule that Breitling uses contained features making a host of pilot-appropriate calculations possible. These include metric to standard conversions, fuel consumption, air speed, distance calculations, and many more. The only catch is that you need to know how to use it.

Breitling Navitimer Caliber 01
Breitling Navitimer Caliber 01

The first Navitimer watches that actually carried the reference 806 (in small numbers on the caseback) were powered by the Venus 178 manual wind chronograph movement. The layout of the watch was the functionary aesthetic that a professional pilot would demand. There was little in the way of case engraving. It was a tool watch for professional pilots of the first order. The Navitimer’s use as an instrument was underscored by its endorsement from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) and the golden-winged AOPA logo that appears on the upper part of the dial.

The Final Frontier

Back in the 1950s, the Navitimer was an oversized professional watch. To accommodate the addition of the rotating slide rule into the bezel, the watch was 43 mm in diameter, large for that time.  Likewise, the depth of the case was far above the size of the normal watch, and for all intents and purposes, the Navitimer was a watch for professionals: professional pilots and plane owners.

It is a testament to the brilliance of the original design that the ergonomic and elegant instrument has seen so little change since inception. The only main design change came from an American astronaut. Although various Russian Cosmonauts, including Yuri Gagarin and Alexey Leonov, had worn Soviet watches, and John Glenn had carried a Heuer stopwatch, it was the fourth Mercury astronaut, Scott Carpenter, who had worn the Breitling Navitimer during his Navy pilot career and suggested that NASA approach Breitling to develop the timepiece for space flight. In 1961, Carpenter discussed with Breitling the idea of incorporating a 24-hour dial instead of the normal 12-hour dial. This was needed because of the lack of day and night during space travel. Breitling obliged, and produced the 24-hour Navitimer, which Carpenter wore on his 1962 space flight. Breitling then proceeded to produce the 24-hour version as the so-called Cosmonaute Navitimer, under both Breitling and AOPA logos. The Navitimer was not only the first instrument watch for pilots within the earth’s atmosphere, but also for an astronaut’s flight in space.


The Breitling Navitimer was an instant success and has remained an icon and mainstay of the Breitling range ever since.  The changes to the dial design have always been small: It is still the same basic layout. The all-black dial was on all Navitimer watches, including the Cosmonaute, until 1963, when the white subdials appeared. In 1964, the golden AOPA wings on the dial were replaced with the new Breitling “twin planes flying in formation” logo. The bezel has equally undergone only a number of small changes. Early Navitimer models had a beaded bezel whereas later on, after 1964, the ridged bezels appeared. The exception to this was the Cosmonaute, which had an accentuated beaded bezel because of the heavier gloves required for space flight.

Between 1971 and 1974, the Venus 178 movement was replaced with the Valjoux 7740 movement, and the date window appeared on the dial. However, the change to an automatic chronograph was after the acquisition of the brand and trademark by Ernest Schneider. The AOPA logo was replaced with the twin planes Breitling logo. This logo changed in 1979 upon acquisition of the Breitling and Navitimer trademarks by Schneider. The golden B and Breitling wings were placed where the AOPA wings once sat on the dial. Today, Breitling remains a family-owned watch manufacture through the Schneider family.

Current-day Navitimers have movements that are produced in-house (from 2010 with the B01 movement). Breitling has become a manufacture in its own right. All movements, dials, and cases are produced at the manufacture in La Chaux de Fonds. Today’s Navitimer is a direct descendant of the original watch from the early 1950s.  And before anyone starts to argue that the case size has been increased to accommodate modern preferences for larger watches, the Navitimer has historic precedent for that too. As early as the late 1960s, Navitimers and Navitimer Cosmonautes were produced with a 47 mm diameter case size, pre-dating any current trend in consumer preferences.


The Navitimer is, according to current Breitling CEO Jean-Paul Girardin, “The quintessential Breitling watch.” In a sense, every Breitling Navitimer is a heritage edition: they all owe their design and function to that first series from the early 1950s. More often than not, the idea of a heritage watch is that some aesthetic look or feature is retained to give a connection to the past. It’s not that the feature or look is required anymore, but it provides a bridge back to a time when the watch would be needed or used as a tool watch.

But the Navitimer is an exception. Ask most pilots: They still want something reliable to be a backup in case all other systems fail. Ask most of us who want a cool-looking chronograph to time that Sunday jog, to measure the time it takes for the local barista to supply us with our favorite coffee, or the number of minutes expended with a particular client, then there are few chronographs out there that have the same time-honored look and heritage that belongs to the Breitling Navitimer. The timepiece also predates the modern preference for tool watches as daily wear. The modern Navitimer might not have the same tool watch function it once did, but its impeccable design will remain cherished forever. —Andrew Hildreth

Author’s note: I am indebted to Justin Jay Koullapis of The Watch Club in London for extremely useful discussions about the Navitimer and for his allowing me to photograph some of the vintage watches in the club’s collection.