The history of the pilot watch is one of the key stories in horology: The need for quick, legible time-keeping for aviators put spurs to moving watches out of the vest pocket and onto the wrist in a general sense, and also formed the first “tool” watches that turned a device of convenience, style and status into a necessity for getting the job done.
Most historians credit Cartier’s timepiece creation for Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont in 1904 as the first purpose-built pilot’s watch, but the ensuing growth of military, commercial, recreational and experimental flight all contributed to this watch style’s development over the years, with multiple additions and riffs to a feature mix that typically includes a large, legible dial; some kind of luminosity; an oversized crown for gloved use; additional bezel markings for in-flight computation; and, often a chronograph and a dual-time zone function (like GMT features and military 24-hour UTC bezel rings).
While the latest crop of top pilot watches can certainly do yeoman service in the cockpit, those who prefer to sit in the back of an airplane can certainly appreciate the authenticity, design and capabilities of this classic timepiece style.
Breitling Super Avenger Chronograph 48 Night Mission, $6,250
Watchmaker Breitling enjoys a particularly strong historical affinity with aviation, especially in the military. “Fighter pilots always remember three things: their first solo flight, their first carrier landing, and their first Breitling,” former commander of the U.S. Navy’s Top Gun fighter school Jim DeMatteo famously said.
The latest in the military-spec Avenger line from Breitling, the Super Avenger 48 Night Mission, screams the kind of professional-quality, tactical design appreciated by the pros and the passengers in equal measure (check out the aircraft carrier-style stenciled numerals on the dial). The bold, light-weight 48mm titanium case makes an impression, and the Breitling Calibre 13 chronograph (with subdials at 6, 9 and 12 o’clock ), Super-LumiNova coated hands and indexes and COSC chronometer certification round out the reliable nature of this tough-looking wrist instrument.
IWC Big Pilot’s Watch Perpetual Calendar TOP GUN Edition “Mojave Desert”, $35,000
While the name is certainly a mouthful, and the price is a wallet-full, this new pilot watch from IWC has a lot going for it; included the inclusion of a meticulously complicated perpetual calendar function. Typically treated as a sometimes fussy high-watchmaking feature that rarely finds its way onto a rugged tool watch, the calendar function adds a big dose of complicated appeal to what is otherwise the most traditional pilot watch in this group.
Inspired by the testing grounds of China Lake in California’s Mojave Desert, flown by daredevil test pilots of yesterday and today, the just-announced Big Pilot Perpetual Calendar sports an appealing sand-colored ceramic 46.5mm case and a very legible brown dial that covers the standard pilot watch functions as well as housing a calendar that automatically recognizes variant month lengths and leap years and displays the accurate moon phases in both the Northern in Southern hemispheres; it won’t need to be reset or calibrated for 577.5 years. Limited to 150 pieces.
Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch Professional Chronograph w/Velcro Strap, $5,350, strap $190
When it comes to piloting, it doesn’t get much more “up there” than an astronaut. While pilot watches and generic chronographs made it into space as the personal wristwatches of early space heroes, Omega has been the officially sanctioned space watch and moon watch since the early days of NASA, and Omega Moonwatches are still part of the standard-issue gear for NASA and International Space Station crew.
Famously, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin strapped his Omega onto a jerry-rigged velcro strap so he could wear it on the outside of his spacesuit when he followed Neil Armstrong onto the moon’s surface during Apollo 11. While this year’s new NASA-approved and badged 20mm velcro straps, available in white, silver and black, won’t quite wind all the way around a spacesuit, they deliver a blast-off of authenticity to any Omega Moonwatch, included the 42mm Professional Chronograph in steel version shown above.
Zenith Chronomaster Sport, $10,000
While Swiss maker Zenith has its own line of more traditional pilot watches in the Type 20 timepieces, the new Chronomaster Sport, especially on a burly canvas strap, certainly bears the earmarks of a stylish, heritage-inspired chronograph that could serve well on a pilot’s wrist.
Representing a modern-meets-heritage take on Zenith’s legendary, bullet-proof El Primero chronograph movement, the timepiece’s unmistakeable tri-color chronograph subdials on a gleaming white dial harken to classicism while new 1/10th of a second accuracy and subtle, cleaner styling brings the El Primero into the modern era. In terms of aviation chops, or in this case, kind of the opposite of aviation, an El Primero-equipped timepiece rode along with Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner when he broke the sound barrier in his record-setting free fall from the edge of the stratosphere to the floor of the New Mexico desert in 2012; oh, just about a 40,000-meter trip.