Since the introduction of the Santos-Dumont wristwatch by Cartier in the early 1900s, watches designed for flight have taken a permanent spot on the wrists of aviators everywhere. Much of this can be attributed to the earliest Flieger watches worn by the Luftwaffe in World War II, which still dictate much of the functional design language of pilot watches today. Even in today’s feature-laden cockpits stacked with GPS and flight management systems, professional and recreational pilots still choose to keep a watch close by—even if just for the novelty value. Because of this, pilot watches (like dive watches) endure as one the most popular options for both brands and watch enthusiasts alike.
Characteristics of a Pilot Watch
There are a few features that separate a pilot watch from other sports watches:
- Large and highly legible open dial with prominent, high-contrast hands, Arabic numerals, and indexes
- Flight computer bezel markings to assist with fuel burn, wind correction angle, and other calculations
- Dual time or GMT functions to track local time, destination time, and UTC
- Anti-magnetic seal, or Faraday cage along with crystal technology to protect against sudden pressure drops
- Oversized winding crown and riveted leather straps
Pilot watches typically fall within one of two design categories. The first is the flight computer: a timepiece capable completing in-flight calculations or serving as a slightly more interesting backup to the E6B flight computer they made you pick up in ground school. The second is more of a military-inspired design which has carried on since World War II into more modern, noteworthy designs like the IWC Big Pilot.
For The AvGeek At Heart
Let’s face it, you’ve never set foot on a flight deck in your entire life. Still, if the idea of early transoceanic voyages or a young hotshot from West Virginia breaking the sound barrier with nothing but the right stuff on his side gets you going, these might be a few features to look for. You might even find yourself getting a small taste of what Mach 1 actually feels like.
- No-nonsense dial with larger hands and an uncluttered look for high-contrast legibility
- Countdown “Mission Time” bezel or a similar straightforward bezel function like a 12-hour indication
- Anti-reflective, shatter-proof sapphire crystal
- Anti-shock movement mount with a highly durable case design
- Versatile design aesthetic that works in both casual and formal settings
- Interchangeable leather strap and bracelet options for added versatility
Our Pick: The Bremont MBII
For The Purist With Modern Taste
If you’re searching for a bolder look and find yourself drawn to the old Flieger designs, consider:
- Flieger-style dial design set in a modern case
- Large size for that true “flight jacket” feeling on the wrist
- Oversized “onion” crown and a distinct triangle 12 o’clock marker
- Architecture inspired by cockpit instrumentation
- Substantial power reserve along with a simple time-only display
Our Pick: The IWC Big Pilot
For The Instrument-Rated Ace
If you find yourself spending more time in the sky and airport hotel rooms, you might want to opt for something functional, with a look that goes beyond the average throwaway digital you found at the Duty-free.
- Fully-functional slide rule bezel for in-flight calculations
- Anti-magnetic case features like a Faraday cage
- Additional complications like a chronograph or GMT function to track multiple time zones
- A sporty look that can also pass for something dressier to pair with your hard earned uniform insignia
- Easily serviced and long-lasting movement that can prove itself in the field
Our Pick: The Breitling Navitimer
A pilot watch is a great option for the casual everyday wearer. And the historical connection makes these watches one of the more interesting options available. But with so much variety, it’s important to research whether or not a pilot watch can fit your functional or aesthetic needs. Consider your options, and be sure to pick one that works for you. All of the watches mentioned here earned their wings at some point or another—so you really can’t go wrong.