A Week On The Wrist: The Breitling Navitimer 8 B01 Chronograph
We put an old-school watch in a cutting-edge jet – find out how this mechanical pilot’s watch holds up in the cockpit.
Pilot’s watches are as popular as they are, not because there are a tremendous number of pilots in the general population, but simply because there are a lot of us in love with the idea of flying. And not flying in the way most of us fly nowadays. I’ve probably logged more miles in the air than Charles Lindbergh, but it’s been a completely passive experience. Air travel today is deliberately engineered either to make you wish you were almost anywhere else (in economy) or to distract you as much as possible (in business class) from the reality of being shot through the air in an aluminum tube, miles above the Earth, with several hundred strangers who are hoping as hard as you are that the crew up front knows what they’re doing, and that the aircraft can be relied on to not shed a wing in mid-flight. (I have an especially vivid memory of a flight to Las Vegas a few years ago and a patch of very nasty clear air turbulence over the Rocky Mountains; the plane shook as if Thor were applying his hammer to the fuselage and an elderly woman in the row ahead of me finally said, plaintively, “I hope this plane is made good!”)
No, the kind of flying we’d like to do is the kind where we’re in the driver’s seat – where instead of being passengers, we’re in control, with just our skill, steady nerves, and knowledge to guarantee that we make it intact from point A to point B. White silk scarves, goggles, flight jackets, the sound of a propeller driven by a supercharged aircraft engine shredding the air, and yes, the nerves-of-steel atmosphere of aerial combat, are all part of the appeal. Of course, none of those things are features, nowadays, of modern civil aviation (well, the propellers are still around, but if you’re taking your Beechcraft Bonanza out to the Vineyard for the weekend, nobody’s going to try and shoot you down on the way) but that’s the world evoked by mechanical pilot’s watches. The environment in which mechanical pilot’s watches evolved was one in which utility trumped every other consideration, and it’s precisely that singular focus that allows pilot’s watches to transcend their utilitarian origins and evoke, powerfully, a bygone world.
The Navitimer Old And New
The original Breitling Navitimer is probably the most specific, in terms of purpose and function, of all pilot’s watches, but the term covers what’s actually a fairly diverse range of timepieces. The chronograph is strongly identified with aviation (to a significant extent, this is thanks to Breitling), but pilot’s watches can certainly be highly accurate time-only watches intended to aid in navigation (often with shielding against magnetic fields) and the category can include GMT and two-time-zone watches as well. Some of the most distinctive watches ever made were pilot’s watches, including the Longines-Weems Second-Setting watch and the Longines Hour-Angle. Like its brother-in-arms, the diver’s watch, the days of a pilot’s watch as an essential piece of gear in the cockpit are past; navigation today is a matter of GPS satellites and radar. But like diver’s watches, pilot’s watches still appeal, because the virtues of the world to which they are connected – bravery, the manifestation of hard-won skills, coolness under pressure – remain universally compelling. Behind every pilot’s watch is a dream of being, as they say, “a natural-born stick-and-rudder man.”
As any student of aviation watches knows, Breitling probably has more street cred as an aviation supplier than any other single watch manufacturer. The company started making cockpit instruments in its “Huit Aviation” department in the 1930s – its first aviation chronograph was made in 1936 (a black-dial model with radium hands and numerals). The first Chronomat, with a slide-rule bezel for general calculations, was produced in 1940 and of course, in 1952, the most famous of Breitling’s pilot watches was introduced: the Navitimer, with a bezel that’s essentially a miniaturized version of the E6B circular slide-rule flight computer (nicknamed the “whiz wheel” or “prayer wheel” by pilots) the first version of which was introduced all the way back in 1933.
The interesting thing about the E6B is that unlike a pilot’s watch, it’s still an important part of modern civil aviation – albeit more often in digital form than not, but many flight schools still train student pilots on the E6B, many aviators still like having one in the cockpit (there isn’t an experienced pilot alive who doesn’t appreciate the value of backups to essential systems) and the FAA still encourages people taking knowledge tests for their pilot’s license to bring one along.
The Breitling Navitimer 8 B01 Chronograph is a very significant departure from what many of us had come to think of as the classic look of a Navitimer – that watch is rather more busy than not, and the flight-computer bezel, while instantly recognizable, is even more of an anachronism than the mechanical flight computer on which it’s based. I imagine there must be people out there who know how to use one but I’m not one of them – I have a Navitimer on my wrist as I write; I’ve had a couple of other flight computer bezel watches over the last couple of decades (from Seiko and Citizen) and I must have taught myself how to use the bezel on all of them at least half a dozen times but absent the incentive of sharpening real world flying skills, it never sticks. However, I still like that it exists and that at least in theory, it could be used for aerial navigation if need be; this despite the fact that as the years have accumulated, I’ve gone from finding the bezel, in use, merely hard to read, to finding it almost impossible to make out without a magnifying glass and very good light. The thought of having to use one in a poorly lit cockpit, with the primary navigation systems out, and with turbulence knocking my presumably small plane around the sky, is enough to make my blood run cold.
It initially bothered a lot of people that Breitling’s new CEO, Georges Kern, introduced a family of watches with the Navitimer moniker but without the flight bezel – and I was one of them. It doesn’t bother me now though. For one thing, if you want a wrist-mounted whiz-wheel wristwatch, Breitling still has them (I count a dozen different versions in the current catalog. And for another thing, after spending some time in the cockpit of one of the most modern small private jets, I’m beginning to think that the emphasis the new Navitimer 8 B01 Chronograph places on instant legibility over the inclusion of a functionality that, in a modern aircraft, is a backup of a backup of a backup, makes a lot of sense.
Before we talk about what the Breitling Navitimer 8 B01 is like in the cockpit, let’s talk about what it’s like wearing it where most people who own one are going to wear it: on the ground.
The Pilot’s Watch For Non-Pilots
In some respects, this watch is straight from the decades-old Breitling playbook we’ve all come to know and love – or not love, as the case may be. It’s a large, and on the bracelet it came with on loan from Breitling, rather heavy watch: 43mm x 13.97mm, which although definitely on the wide side, is actually smaller than the current-issue whiz-wheel equipped Navitimer 1 B01, which sits at 46mm in diameter. The absence of the flight computer bezel makes the watch seem to wear about as big, though; however, without the visual clutter created by the flight computer scales, the Navitimer 8 B01 is a far more legible watch, with excellent and pretty instantaneous readability day or night.
It does take a little getting used to, although not as much as you’d think – we’ve had a darned hot summer here in New York and I’ve been wearing a lot of dive watches (both on and off duty) and so switching over to a larger, stainless steel chronograph has been a lot less of a transition than it might be in fall or winter, when a smaller watch on a strap is more likely to be on your wrist (and mine). The bracelet is very well made, but for me it feels like rather a lot of metal – were I a gent of more imposing stature, this would of course be less the case – and were I to wear the Navitimer 8 B01 on a longer term basis, at some point I’d probably switch the bracelet out for a strap (Breitling makes a very nice alligator strap and of course there are a plethora of other third-party options).
The movement is something Breitling’s had around for some time now but the company’s proud of it, and with reason: the chronograph caliber Breitling 01 was first introduced at Baselworld 2009, and since then, this modern, vertical clutch, column-wheel-controlled, in-house movement has earned a reputation as a solid, reliable piece of work as you could want in a 21st century tool watch. It’s even in use, slightly modified, by Tudor, in the Black Bay Chronograph. I’ve always found operation of the chronograph pushers in this movement to be a little on the stiff side, and in another context I’d be more inclined to take exception, but the unambiguous let-off for start, stop, and reset has the advantage of giving very clear tactile feedback as to whether or not the operation desired is underway.
It’s not, despite Breitling’s somewhat deserved reputation in recent years for making rather flashy watches, a flashy watch – on the wrist it’s actually a pretty sober presence, which I think would make it, over a period of months or years, a pretty regular part of mine or anyone’s rotation. As a very solid entry in the under-$10k in-house automatic chronograph realm, it ought to be an interesting choice for anyone who wants a vintage-inspired watch that doesn’t overstate its connection to the past, has a technically up-to-date mechanism, and still feels strongly connected to the original environment that gave rise to the genre of which the Breitling Navitimer 8 B01 is a part. No, it doesn’t feel like a whiz-wheel Navitimer, but it certainly feels like a pilot’s chronograph (the size is actually a part of the reason why) and it very much feels, to this non-pilot pilot’s watch enthusiast, like a pilot’s watch and not, so to speak, an illustration of a pilot’s watch.
One interesting feature of the Navitimer 8 B01 is that it does still have a two-way rotating bezel, albeit a very simple one with just a single discreet triangle showing where the bezel has been set. I wondered at first what the point might be of having two ways of measuring elapsed time intervals; within a couple of days of getting the watch in for a test drive, I found myself using it along with the chronograph to time simultaneously running dryer and laundry loads. That is about as resolutely ground-bound and unromantic a use for the watch as I can imagine, but I took the point that there are probably many situations where having both would be, if not essential, certainly practical and useful.
Now one of the most commonplace observations you can make about tool watches like pilot’s watches and diver’s watches is that for the most part, they won’t be used by pilots or divers – that is to say, they won’t ever see the ocean depths, nor in the case of a pilot’s watch, are they likely to be seen on the wrist of someone in the driver’s seat of a modern aircraft. In the interests of seeing just what this watch looks and feels like from that perspective, we reached out to Breitling to see if, thanks to their many connections with aviation – the Breitling jet team is still very much a part of the company’s aviation activities, and recently Breitling sponsored the flight of a vintage DC-3 around the world – they could, as the kids these days say, hook us up.
As it turns out, Breitling also has a partnership with Cirrus, which is a maker of some of the most advanced, comfortable, and safe small aircraft today, and with whom the company’s partnered in making limited editions for the many Cirrus pilot owners, the most recent of which is a Cirrus and Breitling co-badged version of their flight-centric analog-digital Aerospace Evo. Getting some air time in a Cirrus aircraft turned out to be a little hard to coordinate thanks to the upcoming Oshkosh air show (a gigantic event that draws over half a million aviation nuts and over 10,000 aircraft of all shapes and sizes) but with some schedule fiddling, we were able to get out to Westchester County Airport one very fine summer afternoon, where we found something pretty exciting waiting for us: the Cirrus SF50 Vision Jet.
Analog Watch, Digital Airplane
My only experience in the cockpit of an aircraft prior to the SF50 Vision Jet has been in high-fidelity computer flight simulators, which are more or less an abandoned genre nowadays, though they were once a thriving category of PC games. My personal favorites were all military flight sims for everything from propeller-driven World War II airplanes (the Soviet IL-2 Sturmovik) to modern ground attack aircraft (the A-10 Thunderbolt) and my personal favorite, the F-16 Fighting Falcon, which is nicknamed the Viper by its pilots, and which was the subject of the classic flight-sim, Falcon 4.0. The F-16 was the first fly-by-wire aircraft, with no mechanical linkage between the controls and control surfaces, and featured a number of other innovations, including a one-piece domed canopy for improved visibility, and a side-stick; it was also called “the Electric Jet.”
The simulator features a so-called virtual cockpit – basically, your point of view is the one you’d have in the pilot’s seat, and all the buttons and switches work as they would in a real airplane. The aerodynamic characteristics of the airplane are accurately modeled as well, and the manual is over 300 pages – it’s an immersive experience, but the learning curve is very steep and rather than doing a lot of knocking the plane around the sky in gripping one-on-one encounters, you actually spend a surprising amount of time managing tracking radar sub-modes and trying to spoof enemy air-to-air missiles, which has all the glamour of proofreading a machinist’s manual on making screws, combined with the threat of instant death if you miss a semicolon.
The workload in a simulator can be pretty high, but it doesn’t compare to what it’s like being in a small, non-commercial aircraft designed to be flown by a pilot/owner. The Vision is the smallest and least expensive personal private jet in the world – now, “least expensive” is a relative term; if you want to buy one, be prepared, if you order it now, to spend $1.96 million (and wait five years; they’re in very high demand). This is, however, about half the cost of the next most expensive private jet. You get quite a lot for your money, as well – the aircraft has an incredibly spacious cabin for the size (we had plenty of room for me, the pilot, and two increasingly nervous videographers with tripods and DSLRs). Five adults can ride at a maximum cruising altitude of 28,000 feet and a speed of 300 knots in much better comfort and having a hell of a lot more fun than you will find in any commercial aircraft. (It’s grossly unfair, but I’m always more nervous in small regional aircraft than in a big jet … I can’t help feeling that the air crew must have been unable to play in the majors).
The turbofan jet engine is mounted on top of the carbon fiber fuselage, which reduces cabin noise and also reduces the chance of sucking a runway-crossing squirrel into the air intake. That’s the reason for the V-shaped tail – a standard tailfin would stick right up into the engine exhaust – which in combination with the very pretty lines of the jet overall, make it a most eye-catching presence in the hangar or in the air. The biggest talking point of the SF50 Vision, other than the tremendous bang for the buck it offers, is the CAPS system. CAPS stands for Cirrus Airframe Parachute System, which goes one better the paranoid flyer’s fantasy of having their own parachute – it’s a rocket-deployed parachute system for the entire aircraft, and if things really go south and you’ve decided to place survival over pride, you have but to pull the big red handle set into the ceiling right above the pilot’s seat, and the parachute will deploy, lowering the whole plane relatively gently to earth. The CAPS system is present on all Cirrus aircraft, both jet and piston engine models and since it was first used by a Cirrus owner in 2002, it’s been deployed nearly 90 times and has saved over 150 lives, making Cirrus planes some of the safest in the world.
Inside the aircraft (our pilot was in the right hand seat, with me in the left) you notice that rather than a standard, steering-wheel-like yoke, you have a side-stick, just as you’d find in the F-16 and many other modern jet fighters. The view from the cockpit is amazing – the SF50 has gigantic windows and visibility couldn’t be better. The instrumentation is from Garmin and it is up-to-the-minute modern: a dual touchscreen display, which can be customized as the situation warrants, and which takes the place of a traditional analog altimeter, airspeed indicator, attitude indicator, and so on. The display also shows other critical navigation and flight information, including any other traffic out to a range of 8 miles (including direction and altitude info) a visual representation of the landscape over which you’re flying, including any obstacles higher than your altitude (which are shown in red) status of aircraft systems, potentially problematic weather, and on and on. There are an abundance of caution and warning systems, and the automated warning voice pilots have nicknamed “Bitchin’ Betty” will primly alert you to the presence of incoming traffic, unsafe altitude, engine malfunction or fire (god forbid), and in general keep you on your toes.
Our flight took about an hour and a half, and we followed a route from Westchester to just past the Statue of Liberty, turning left after takeoff to head west over the Tappan Zee Bridge, and then turning south to follow the Hudson River to New York Harbor. The airspace over Manhattan is some of the busiest in the world, especially on a weekday afternoon in the summer, and at our low altitude – we were at about a thousand feet or less for most of the flight, with the top floors of several skyscrapers actually higher than we were – things can get exciting. They say that if you make it in New York you can make it anywhere and the same is true, I’ve heard, about flying in and around New York – between all the heliports, regional airports, La Guardia, JFK, and Newark you can’t swing a stick without hitting an aircraft, and it seemed like every two minutes Betty was alerting us to nearby traffic on a potentially problematic vector. This is all by way of saying that the workload on the pilot is significant to put it mildly – we were moving fast and more than once, other aircraft (choppers especially) seemed to come alarmingly close – but our pilot was cool as a cucumber, just the way you’d want it.
I had a chance to take the stick on the way back, which was probably the most exciting 15 minutes I’ve ever had at work. We had a little turbulence, but nothing terrible, and visibility was as clear as you could want all the way out to the horizon. Our pilot talked me through a leisurely left hand turn to put us on final. All us simulator jockeys would like to think we could handle a real airplane, and for sure, a simulator is a really useful context to have, but there is something about feeling an actual aircraft respond to your joystick inputs for which a flight sim does not prepare you, and I noticed the chatter from the back seats settle into a worried silence. The stick was much more resistant than I’d expected to control inputs; it has pretty robust centering springs, I suspect, all of which is part of the jet’s overall design, which is intended to return you to safe level flight as quickly as possible. As with modern cars, there is a lot of software helping to keep the already inherently very stable jet out of trouble – you would have to defeat a number of built-in safety systems to stall the aircraft and short of willfully flying into the ground or deliberately ignoring bad weather or icing warnings, it’s hard to imagine seriously endangering yourself in the Vision. And if you do, well, there’s always that big red handle.
There were a couple of takeaways from the whole experience. First and foremost, for someone piloting an aircraft – especially someone flying a smaller aircraft through busy airspace – there’s a lot to keep track of. I’d never felt especially overwhelmed in the zero-consequences environment of a flight simulator but in one of the front seats of a real plane, you become aware very quickly that there’s a lot going on and a lot that requires your undivided attention. That means that if you want to keep track of the time, you probably want a watch that’s extremely easy to read and that doesn’t have any unnecessary frills. In this respect the Navitimer 8 B01 might actually be a more practical choice than the original flight-bezel Navitimer. A larger watch in the context of a busy cockpit is a blessing – it takes only a glance to read the time, and although there are other timers built into the glass cockpit touchscreen displays, if you did want to use the watch for keeping track of flight time as well, you’d find it a rock-solid backup to modern avionics.
The environment in the cockpit is also one that would tend to favor a sturdy watch over something more delicate – you’re not doing anything as apt to bash your watch around as rock climbing or mountain biking, but it’s still relatively tight quarters and knocking into things tends to come with the territory. You wouldn’t necessarily expect any really high-G impacts (unless of course, the whole aircraft is misbehaving, in which case you have other problems) but if you’re going to have a watch at all, having one that can reliably keep time under pressure, that you can read instantly, and that you don’t have to baby, is a major plus.
That someone at the controls of an ultra-modern jet like the SF50 Vision might actually find an analogue mechanical watch useful came as something of a surprise to me, but thanks to the complexity of the cockpit and the significant demands on pilot attention, it’s a good thing to have along. It reminds me very much of the E6B flight computer – the original metal version, not the digital one. It’s not going to be anyone’s primary instrument, but it’s never a bad thing to have something that’s not dependent on battery power and which can take over some functionality should something go wrong. Despite the presence of the very sophisticated instrumentation in the SF50, being able to see the time quickly and easily on your wrist remains a reassuring supplement to all the digital sophistication at your fingertips, and as someone remarked on a pilot’s discussion forum, ” … having a mechanical, 100% reliable, backup is priceless when you really need it.” The conversation was about the E6B flight computer but the point remains apropos.
Taken in the context of modern technology, at first glance the Navitimer 8 B01 Chronograph seems an anachronism. However this is not entirely true. Spending a little time in the cockpit is a reminder that while technology changes, the basic needs of a pilot flying a plane remain the same: you need easy access to visually unambiguous information, delivered with maximum clarity and minimum chance of confusion. I found the Navitimer 8 B01 very much at home up in the air, even surrounded by up-to-the-minute technology, because fundamentally, it and that technology are built around the same principles. The best instruments are ones that don’t call attention to themselves, but to the information they deliver and in that respect, the apparently plain-Jane qualities of the Navitimer 8 B01 become virtues.
Nobody needs a pilot’s watch – probably. Like the mechanical diver’s watch, though, they’re not entirely obsolete, either. First of all, having something backing up essential systems is a fundamental aspect of risk reduction, whether you’re in the air or underwater. Secondly, in highlighting one or two essential pieces of information, they serve a valuable, if supplementary, practical purpose.
Finally, what you want from a tool watch – to return to an earlier point – is the knowledge that it’s an honest expression of the original purpose for which that category of watch is intended. The enduring appeal of the most classic pilot’s watches and dive watches largely stems from their fidelity to form-follows-function. A true pilot’s watch is a rather spare thing, but that’s exactly what gives it its authenticity – it’s content to actually be a pilot’s watch, rather than trying to act the part. The original Navitimer was, and is, such a watch but it’s also rooted in a particular era, when knowing how to use an E6B was absolutely essential. The Navitimer 8 B01 Chronograph reaches further back in Breitling’s design history than the original Navitimer – all the way back to the 1930s. Yet it somehow manages to seem even more timeless than the original, because of its fidelity to a time when the fundamental design vocabulary of aircraft instrumentation were first being established.
The Navitimer 8 B01 taken alone, is a sturdy, slightly large, rather austere wristwatch. Taken in the larger context of aviation, however, it takes on a different feel – even if you never fly an airplane in your life, knowing your watch is built to work, and work well, in the world it looks like it was made for, makes it a watch that radiates the strength of its convictions in its own functional integrity.