In the early 1900s, most men still carried pocket watches. However, as aviation became more established, new pilots found that they needed a more practical instrument for navigation. The invention of what are now pilot watches filled that need. Today, pilot watches are popular with the aviation community and watch enthusiasts alike. Learn more, and see the most iconic pilot watches on the market.
Alberto Santos-Dumont was one of the first men to fly in a fixed-wing aircraft. Legend has it that in 1904, he was enjoying a drink with his friend and watchmaker Louis Cartier. As they were chatting, he commented on his need for a watch that he could read easily while flying. His pocket watch just wouldn’t work. While the wristwatch was already in existence, it was mostly worn as a ladies’ jewelry item. Still, Cartier used it as inspiration to fashion a model for his friend. His creation was more masculine, with a leather band that fastened with a buckle. This watch would later serve as the foundation for the first official pilot watch: the Cartier Santos.
The First World War played a major role in shaping the pilot watch and the wristwatch at large. Early on, military forces were still commissioning pocket watches for fighter pilots, like the Mark IV and Mark V. However, this period would be the last to really utilize the pocket watch as a pilot’s tool. As the technology of the wristwatch progressed and its convenience and durability became apparent, production shifted. After the war, the stigma of the wristwatch forever shifted. Still, it wasn’t until Charles Lindbergh’s history-making, trans-Atlantic flight in 1927 that the pilot watch solidified its place as a key navigational tool for flight. On his journey, he wore a Longines model. Then, upon his return, he worked with the brand to develop a watch that would help pilots determine their location over the open ocean. Together, they adapted a nautical navigation watch to create the Hour Angle. It featured a demarcated rotating bezel that allowed the wearer to calculate longitude. It also showcased unique dial markings. These helped the pilot tell their location by cross-referencing the time with the Earth’s 360-degree rotation. Lindbergh was revolutionary. He proved that aeronautics would be key in bringing the world together. In addition, his insight ensured that a well-designed watch would be instrumental in the future of aviation.
The next major moment in the evolution of the pilot watch came at the onset of the Second World War. During the war, there was an increased need for a watch that pilots could read at a glance during day and night missions. Thus, the pilot watch proved to be crucial for U.S. Army Air Forces. The iconic watch of the war was the American-produced A-11. This small and simple watch was extremely durable and reliable. It saw the United States Army Air Forces through crucial events leading to an eventual Allied victory. Still, it was during the post-war aviation boom that the pilot watch took on the easily identifiable, complicated characteristics seen in many modern watch models.
A few key features separate a pilot watch from other sport watches. They typically have large and highly legible dials with prominent, high-contrast hands for optimal visibility in extreme conditions. To withstand constant changes in pressure, most pilot watches contain an anti-magnetic seal or Faraday cage along with crystal technology. Many models also feature dual time or GMT functions to track local time, destination time, and UTC.
As far as what a pilot watch looks like, the answer isn’t so simple. For a tool that’s evolved to suit various needs, the pilot watch has developed different characteristics based on its use. Complex chronographs, like those produced by Breitling, contain a stopwatch feature for timekeeping and a slide rule bezel. This unique bezel design helps pilots calculate speed, distance, and fuel consumption all on the wrist. Some chronographs will also have an additional flyback complication. This allows the wearer to use the stopwatch without having to stop the chronograph. In short, to reset the timer, just press a button. Then, the seconds hand will “fly back” to zero and start again. These added complications make chronographs particularly useful for working pilots who need to measure time intervals while in flight. However, they also have their place in more casual use.
Then there are the very straightforward and utilitarian fliegers. These models draw inspiration from historic aviation watches like the B-Uhr watches produced for the German Luftwaffe in WWII. They feature minimalist black dials and luminous hands and markers designed for maximum legibility and navigation. This deceptively simple design and larger dial makes the flieger a no-fuss fashion item for the modern watch wearer, whether you need to navigate in the dark or not.
Last but not least, there are the iconic dual-colored, rotating bezel watches. These were developed for commercial pilots during the aviation age of the 1950s and 1960s. One of the earliest and most famous examples is the Rolex GMT Master. This model introduced an easy-to-read design for telling time between multiple time zones. It remains a classic look for watches even today.
Even with today’s advancements in aviation technology, both professional and recreational pilots often choose to keep a watch close by – even if just for its historical significance and appealing design. Because of this, pilot watches continue to be one of the most popular models for the aviation community and watch enthusiasts alike. One example is the IWC Top Gun pilot watch collection. As the name suggests, it pays homage to the Fighter Tactics Instructor program, reserved for the U.S. Navy’s top pilots. This ultra-masculine model is the only one on the market bearing the iconic Top Gun name. Breitling is another top producer of pilot watches. The Avenger family is instantly recognizable for their massive build, which provides the maximum sturdiness and shock resistance. Then, there’s the iconic Navitimer. This model is like a miniature computer for pilots. In 1962, the model reached new heights. That year, Breitling added a groundbreaking 24-hour dial to help spacemen distinguish between night and day. More than simply a stylish watch, a Bell & Ross Aviation serves as an indispensable survival tool. The Bremont Zulu ALT1-ZT collection is another popular watch among the military squadrons who partner with the brand. The ALT1-ZT/51 variation adds a new dimension to the range. It also integrates design elements from Bremont’s historic aviation watches like the Limited Edition P51. Aviation is also an important part of the Breguet family’s history of watchmaking. The Type XX Transatlantique model pays homage to Type XX Transatlantic planes produced by Breguet Aviation in the early 1900s.
The IWC Top Gun pilot watch collection pays homage to the Fighter Tactics Instructor program, reserved for the U.S. Navy’s top pilots. This ultra-masculine model is the only one on the market bearing the iconic Top Gun name.
More than simply a stylish watch, a Bell & Ross Aviation serves as an indispensable survival tool. This is tactical timekeeping.
The Breitling Avenger family of pilot watches are known for their massive build, which provides the maximum sturdiness and shock resistance. The special edition Skyland Blacksteel model came in a limited number of only 2000 pieces.
The Bremont Zulu ALT1-ZT collection is popular among the military squadrons who partner with the brand. The ALT1-ZT/51 variation adds a new dimension to the range and integrates a significant design from Bremont’s past – the Limited Edition P51.
The Breitling Navitimer is like a miniature computer for pilots. In 1962, the model reached new heights when Breitling added a groundbreaking 24-hour dial to help spacemen distinguish between night and day.
Aviation is an important part of the Breguet family’s history of watchmaking. The Type XX Transatlantique model pays homage to Type XX Transatlantic planes produced by Breguet Aviation in the early 1900’s.
The creation of the Santos marks a major moment in the history of Cartier. It was not only the brand’s first men’s wristwatch but also the first pilot watch ever made.
Today, the complex functions found in historic aviation watches has migrated from the wrist to the plane’s instrument panel. Given the increased sophistication in aviation technology, we don’t have as much practical need for the complications that made the pilot watch a necessity in the early and mid-20th century. Still, we love the pilot watch for its historical significance, its appealing design, and the sense of adventure and possibility we feel when we wear one on our wrist.
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