Pilot Watches Democratised: There’s Something For Everyone
Despite its name, a pilot watch isn’t just for an aviator. Whether you’re earthbound or cruising at altitude, there’ll be one that can meet your needs.
From a watch’s perspective, keeping accurate time with useful secondary functions presents a very different set of challenges when its wearer is airborne with six degrees of freedom. As form follows function, pilot watches have turned out very differently from their diver or rally chronograph counterparts. Whether you’re looking to get a functional timepiece for aviation, live vicariously through others with one, or just make a fashion statement with something aviation-themed, we have some watches here for you to consider.
Despite Zenith’s ties to aviation from the early 1900s, the only thing remotely historic about its chronograph here is its size. Harking back to the early days of aviation, the Pilot Type 20 Tourbillon’s 48mm case diameter echoes the B-Uhr watches worn by German bomber navigators in World War 2, which were 55mm wide. Everything else about this watch defines it as a modern luxury timepiece, from its titanium and rose gold construction to its automatic movement beating at 5 Hz. The asymmetric subdial arrangement accentuates this by presenting a visual quirk that highlights the tourbillon at 11 o’clock. To round things off, the date indication rims the tourbillon for a decidedly modern touch.
Breitling’s Navitimer comes upsized this year in a 46mm case. While 2mm may not seem like a lot, compare the two watches’ ultra-busy dials in person and you’ll see that the larger sibling is noticeably more legible. Understandably, every bit of real estate makes a difference given the Navitimer tri-compax layout with a date window, tachymeter and circular slide rule. If your wrist allows you to pull the larger Navitimer off, we strongly suggest that you go for it over the original and perish any thoughts of subtlety. After all, bigger is better for a pilot’s watch, no?
Sinn’s flagship mission timer is an over-engineered monster that’s better worn over a flight suit in the cockpit than under a French cuff in the boardroom. You can expect the whole enchilada with this watch; it is anti-magnetic, shockproof, water and low pressure resistant and even legible under UV light. It also comes with Sinn’s full suite of technologies, including a hardened titanium case, an internal dehumidifier and a silicon escapement. Note too, the centre chronograph minute counter a la the old Lemania 5100 – instead of the typical 30-minute chronograph subdial, it measures a more intuitive 60 minutes per revolution. How’s this for a tool watch?
Amongst all the watches in this list, IWC’s entry is arguably the most versatile. With its alligator leather strap, the Mark XVII’s three hands, simple date window and (relatively) modest 41mm case makes it dressy enough for formal occasions. When matched with its stainless steel bracelet or an aftermarket NATO strap, the watch morphs into a sporty timepiece that’s rugged enough for most outdoor activities. Note too, that IWC was one of the five original manufactures of B-Uhr watches: you’ll be owning a timepiece that traces its lineage back to the first definitive pilot watch.
This watch first caught our attention given its unusual choice of aluminium for its case. While aluminium is extremely light, its softness makes it stand up poorly to abuse. Hamilton has said that they’ve developed a special metal treatment to overcome this issue while also allowing the watch to take on intense shades of colour, thus improving both the watch’s durability and aesthetic value. The watch comes in four military-themed colours to capitalise on this: sand, navy, khaki green and black. The internal rotating countdown bezel is another nice touch – countdown bezels are far more useful for a pilot than a typical diver’s “count up” bezel.
For some instant chic, strap on the BR 03-92 Ceramic. After all, you can’t deny the inherent coolness of wearing what looks like a cockpit instrument on your wrist. Besides, the watch is a compelling choice for being instantly recognisable from afar, even by a layman. Bell & Ross’s latest iteration of its staple maintains its excellent legibility with an uncluttered dial that tells the time at a glance, but comes updated in a ceramic case that’s light, virtually scratchproof and corrosion resistant. With nine different colour combinations available, including one in white ceramic with diamonds set on its bezel, you’ll have no excuse for wearing one that clashes with your outfit.
Breguet may be famous for the invention of the tourbillon and its iconic Breguet hands, but its Type XX and Type XXI pilot chronographs are no slouches either. In fact, the Type XXI chronograph featured here is the only one on this list with a flyback complication – an essential feature for pilots who are flying a search or holding pattern, as the chronograph can be restarted instantaneously for each successive leg of the pattern to maintain navigational accuracy. The titanium case, centre chronograph minute hand and emphasis on legibility makes this watch highly functional, but its coin-edge case makes it distinctively Breguet, and brings to mind the brand’s focus on luxury timepieces.
As the most affordable timepiece in this line up, the Bristol Bulldog is quite a bargain for its value vis-à-vis its price. For a start, you get a watch whose peculiar design melds a case reminiscent of pocket watches with unusual lugs that reference how early wristwatches were attached with straps. In the same vein, the date display at three o’clock has been styled like a cockpit altimeter, while the small second hand at nine o’clock has been modified to look like a mini-propeller to further strengthen the watch’s connection with aviation. Considering the Sellita SW 290-1 movement powering it, the Bristol Bulldog is a good buy indeed.
We were thoroughly impressed by this watch and its myriad of functions: time and date, chronograph, alarm, day/night indicator, second time zone with day/night indicator, separate power reserves for movement and alarm, and tachymeter. What’s even more remarkable was how Fortis managed to fit all these functions onto the dial and maintain a monochromic colour scheme, instead of segregating functions within sectors on the dial or grouping them by colour. To adjust all these indicators and functions, the Flieger Chrono Alarm GMT has two crowns and three pushers. Given how complicated it is, however, we advise keeping it wound up and running.