pilot's watches ZENITH_Pilot Big Date Flyback

How time flies: The world’s best pilot’s watches

02 May 2023|By Richard Brown

Form meets function in these stellar pilot's watches – which look great even if you're staying firmly grounded

Apparently, you don’t need to be a professor of quantum mathematics to understand how to use the slide rule on a Breitling Navitimer. I’ll take your word for it. Breitling’s halo timepiece may not be the oldest of the pilot’s watches – that accolade, according to some, belongs to Cartier’s Santos, which was commissioned by Brazilian daredevil aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont in 1904. Calling the Santos a ‘pilot’s watch’, however, kind of ignores the fact that the Cartier was, ostensibly, a dress watch worn on a plane. By which token you could also call the Santos the world’s first ‘sports’ watch. Or the first ‘tool’ watch. If you see where I’m going.   

Technically, Breitling’s Navitimer shouldn’t call itself a ‘pilot’ watch, either. Only Zenith, from a legal perspective, can deploy that term (on its dials at least), the forward-thinking watchmaker having trademarked the word for its own sky-bound timepieces in the same year that Santos-Dumont was commissioning Cartier to reconfigure a pocket watch for his wrist (the Wright brothers, to highlight the infancy of the industry at the time, had only recorded their first successful manned flight the year before).

Still, there’s no arguing that the Navitimer has become the most emblematic of pilot’s watches by proxy. Which is a little odd, given that the Navitimer, with its cluttered dial and intimidating bezel mathematics, possesses few of the characteristics we’d associate with other legendary pilot’s watches – legibility, user-friendliness and simplicity, mostly.  

Yet, as we’ll see below, pilot’s watches are a diverse bunch, far harder to pigeonhole by function and aesthetic characteristics than, say, diver’s watches, which tend to riff off the same basic design principles. A broad church, then, but a congregation that contains some of the most enduring watch designs ever produced.

Looking for a gutsy pilot’s watch to channel the have-a-go spirit of Santos-Dumont? These iconic aviation watches have all passed the test of time…

Breitling Navitimer

The Navitimer wasn’t the first Breitling to feature a slide-rule bezel. That accolade belongs to the Chronomat, launched in 1942. The Navitimer, which debuted in 1952, was, however, the first watch to combine such a bezel with a chronograph, making it easier for pilots to calculate things like speed, distance and fuel consumption.

In 2022, to celebrate the Navitimer’s 70th anniversary, Breitling refreshed the collection with a range of new colourways. A slimmer oscillating weight was also introduced, meaning that more of Breitling’s in-house Calibre 01 movement is now visible through an exhibition case-back. Today, the Navitimer represents the industry’s oldest continually-produced chronograph.

Visit breitling.com

Zenith Pilot

Zenith’s Pilot collection is the watchmaker’s oldest continually-produced watch family and was the recipient of a ground-up overhaul in 2023. The jewel in the crown is the 42.5mm Pilot Big Date Flyback, available in either stainless steel or stealthy black ceramic. Both watches feature Zenith’s famous, high-frequency El Primero movement. Luminescent white hands and hour markers ensure legibility, while horizontal grooves on the dial are intended to mimic the corrugated metal on the fuselage of vintage aircrafts. Last year, Zenith launched the Defy Skyline collection, which in little over 12 months became one of the brand’s best-selling lines. We’d expect the equally well-conceived new Pilot collection to be a similar success.

Visit zenith-watches.com

IWC Pilot's Watch

IWC Big Pilot

IWC’s association with pilot’s watches stretches all the way back to 1936, when it developed the ‘Spezialuhr für Flieger’, or ‘Special Watch for Pilots’. During the Second World War, the company developed the 55mm ‘Big Pilot’, which was equipped with a pocket-watch movement, and, after the conflict, would bring out the iconic Mark X, created in collaboration with the British Ministry of Defence. The most recent update to IWC’s Pilot collection is the 41 Top Gun Oceana Chronograph – the first 41mm Pilot to be rendered in ceramic. Developed in collaboration with Pantone, the colour is inspired by the shade of the United States’, er, Navy. Presumably, the Air Force never picked up the phone.  

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Blancpain Air Command

Think ‘Blancpain’ and you’re more likely to think diver’s watches than pilot’s watches, the Swiss brand being best known for the Fifty Fathoms, the world’s first modern dive watch. Yet, having supplied that underwater timepiece to the United States Navy in the 1950s, Blancpain then received a commission from the American Air Force, which was looking for a high-precision chronograph for its pilots. The result was the Air Command, a collection that’s highly sought-after today owing to the simple fact that so few were produced. For years, the modern Air Command was only available in a hefty 42.5mm format. Since last year, you can now opt for a more elegant 36.2mm case in either titanium or red gold.

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Omega Speedmaster

omega speedmaster super racing

What’s a chronograph developed for timing racing cars doing on a list of pilot’s watches? Well, as you know, the Omega Speedmaster’s main claim to fame is the fact it was the first watch in space (1962) and the first watch to be worn on the moon (1969). Indeed, the Speedmaster was the only wristwatch endorsed by NASA for all six of its lunar landings – hence the ‘Moonwatch’ moniker. And what is an astronaut if not the pilot of a spacecraft? Omega’s latest Speedmaster, the Super Racing, is the first ‘Speedie’ to be guaranteed to an accuracy of between 0 and +2 seconds per day.

Visit omegawatches.com

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