Pilot's watches are amongst the most distinctive types of fine mechanical timepiece. They are characteristic for their great legibility, black dials with white numerals and hands reminiscent of cockpit instruments, and a few functions useful for pilots. In today's super-technological age, cockpit time-keeping is performed by avionics, but private pilots still appreciate a good aviation watch. And, heck, it's about the dream. A glance at your watch when you're in the office, and you think of the wide blue yonder that awaits you on your next flight.
As regards functions, a chronographic feature is very useful. Hacking seconds used to be essential for wartime aircrew. Anti-magnetic specifications were important for military watches.
Some brands have some specific aviation heritage, such as Blancpain, IWC, Breguet, Breitling, Bell & Ross and Longines. Some models manufactured by brands today are based on vintage models that were actually used in aviation. This year, the pilot's watch sector has seen a flurry of interest – IWC said that 2012 is going to be their year of the pilot's watch – and some new models. We present our favourite top ten...
1. IWC Pilot's Watch Chronograph Top Gun (ref. 3880)
This a good example of a watch that includes the classic aviator functions. It is a chronograph with flyback function, and the in-house 89365 calibre is shielded against magnetism by a soft-iron inner case. The case itself is fairly large at 46 mm in diameter, and made of ceramic, which means that the watch is very light. It has a 68-hour power reserve.
The dial provides many references to a flight cockpit, with an overall design that recalls an altimeter. Legibility is assured by the luminescent white hands and displays, against the black background. The stopwatch hand is central, and has a red counterpoise shaped like a jet. The flyback function enables a new time-recording period to be started at the touch of a button. The small seconds dial has the hacking seconds function. The back of the watch features the United States Navy Fighter Weapons School Top Gun logo. The strap is in soft black fabric to complete the military look.
2. Rolex GMT-Master II
The GMT-Master by Rolex was introduced for international pilots, and the GMT-Master II continues the theme, with the hour hand read on the dial, and a 24-hour hand that is read on the bezel, which can be set according to the time zone. The bezel is in black Cerachrom, hard and corrosion-resistant. The watch is fitted with the classic Oyster bracelet. It is made in various versions, steel, steel and yellow gold, and yellow gold with black or green dial. It is powered by the Cal. 3185 movement, with the Rolex Parachrom hairspring that is virtually immune to magnetic fields and temperature changes. Dial legibility is excellent thanks to the luminescent coating.
3. Zenith Montre d'Aeronef Type 20 Pilot's Watch
At Baselworld, Zenith presented a historical review of their pilot's watches dating back to 1910, and in particular a piece worn by Louis Blériot with a large crown that made it easy to use with gloves. The Zenith Montre d'Aeronef Type 20 Pilot's Watch has a similar large crown, and it is gigantic overall, with a case a whopping 57.5 mm in diameter housing the Cal. 5011 manually-wound movement, designed for pocket watches. It certainly means good legibility, though it needs a fair-sized wrist. It is made in a limited edition of 250 pieces.
4. IWC Pilot's Watch Saint Exupery 2012
This is IWC's sixth watch celebrating the French writer and aviator Antoine Saint-Exupery. This version in red gold is powered by the IWC automatic Cal. 89361, with flyback chronograph, with chronograph hours and minutes shown concentrically with two small hands on the top subdial. Seconds and date are shown on the subdial at 6. This limited edition of 500 pieces is very beautiful, with its tobacco-colour dial with sunburst pattern, and brown leather strap. Antoine's last aircraft, the P-38, is engraved on the back.
5. Bell & Ross BR 01 Altimetre
Bell & Ross is a brand that we could not omit here, because their BR Instrument series was designed to simulate cockpit instruments. The BR 01 Altimeter is a 2012 model that is very close to the appearance of an altimeter, with the pressure indicator at 3 o'clock becoming a big date indicator. The watch is powered by an ETA 2892 automatic movement. The case is square, in steel, with black PVD coating, and a rubber and canvas strap. Supremely legible, it will appeal to all aviation enthusiasts. Looking at it really makes you feel like you're in a cockpit.
6. Breitling Chronomat GMT
Breitling is one of the classic pilot's watch brands, and aviation is an important part of their communications activities. Their Chronomat GMT is a chronograph with a 24-hour display for a second time zone, a column-wheel chronograph and a 70-hour power reserve. It is powered by the new Breitling Calibre 04, based on its previous 01. The subdials of the chronograph give the watch a complicated appearance, reducing the visibility in daytime, but in darkness, the luminescent hands and indices are perfectly legible.
7. Bremont MBII
This is de rigueur for the legend. This Bremont watch is the accessible version of the MBI, in which the letters stand for Martin-Baker, the company that makes ejector seats. You can only own an MBI if you've ejected from a jet plane. If you haven't done this yet, go for the MBII, which has the same great looks, the classic black dial-white numeral take enhanced by the black strap and the brilliant idea of an anodized barrel in orange, green or black. The automatic chronometer movement provides hour, minute, second, day and date.
8. Alpina Aviaton Automatic
I can't help loving this watch for its purity and simplicity. Alpina make a fair range of pilot's watches, some with chronograph function, but this is an automatic, with hours, minutes, dates and seconds, with 42 hours power reserve, and a stainless steel case. A classic, at a price that is more accessible than other Swiss brands.
9. Tourby Aviator Automatic
Tourby's Flieger range of pilot watches have a case size of 42 mm, and they are almost unique in their field in that they don't have a logo on the face. They are in fact based on WWII types and the German brand take consistency with history very seriously. Legibility is superb, with a central second hand. It fits a Swiss-made ETA 2824-2 automatic movement, with a flat sapphire glass. SuperLuminova C1 or C3 on hands and dial, and hand-sewn wrist straps. The watch is made in versions with sapphire caseback, decorated movement, knurled bezel and other elaborations, but I personally love the simplicity of the basic version. For people with small wrists, the Small Pilot version has a 38.5 mm case.
10. Omega Spacemaster Z-33
This model was presented at Basel, 2012 and it is the new version of the brand's much-loved X-33. Purists may wonder about this one, but a quartz watch makes it easier to fit a whole load of functions into the device, particularly if it is an object intended for professional use. The Spacemaster Z-33 is an analogical-digital watch that fits into an ultra-cool 43 mm titanium case, with a titanium crown for setting the analogue hands, and four pushers for the many features. There are two LCD displays that show date, UTC, dual time zones, chronograph, countdown time, alarm and perpetual calendar. Pilots can log flight data.
The digital displays have backlit red-on-black characters, and the hands are both highly legible and skeletonized, to permit easy reading of the digital displays. The hands can be moved out of the way temporarily by a quick pressure on a pusher, so that they point somewhere away from the two digital screens. The watch is powered by an Omega 5666 thermo-compensated quartz movement. Rubber or leather strap.
So, whatever your choice, happy landings!