Style / World of Watches (WOW)

High Flyer: Rolex’s Illustrious History in the Skies

Rolex is widely associated with divers and racers, thanks to the success of its Submariner and Daytona models, but from as the as early 1950s, it has also been making watches for other professionals including pilots

Jan 30, 2019 | By Jonathan Ho

English aviator Charles Douglas Barnard

Think divers’ watches, and one’s mind invariably turns to the Rolex Submariner; think chronographs for racers, and images of the iconic Cosmograph Daytona comes unbidden. Yet, from as early as the 1950s, Rolex has also been developing timepieces to serve a wide array of other professionals including pilots. In terms of pop culture, Rolex’s aviation watches have not enjoyed the same widespread fame as its brethren. However, the manufacturer has an illustrious history in the skies. For instance, during WWII, it was a supplier to the Royal Air Force and contributed to the English Top Guns’ eventual victory in the Battle of Britain.

First Oyster Perpetuel, 1931

In the mid-1920s, early RAF aviators were issued with 30mm Rolex Speedkings, but its diminutive proportions made legibility an issue for pilots already dealing with the many instruments and counters in the cockpits. When some of the veteran pilots started investing in Rolex Oyster Perpetual watches for better readability, Hans Wilsdorf (founder of Rolex) eventually started to create models like the Air Lion and Air Giant, which are the progenitors of the Air-King.

“The peculiar qualities of this Rolex watch render it eminently suitable for flying purposes, and I propose to use it on all my long-distance flights in the future.” – Aviator Charles Douglas Barnard on his Rolex Oyster

As we transitioned into a post-industrial civilisation, spectacular progress in aircraft performance continued to expand our capacity to conquer the skies, leading to ever-increasing long-distance records. Among the early pioneers was British pilot Charles Douglas Barnard, who set a number of flight records with his trusty Rolex Oyster. He once commented, “The peculiar qualities of this Rolex watch render it eminently suitable for flying purposes, and I propose to use it on all my long-distance flights in the future.”

In 1933, Rolex Oyster watches accompanied the Houston Expedition as it made the first-ever flight over Mount Everest at an altitude exceeding 10,000m (33,000ft) in extreme weather conditions. In 1934, Owen Cathcart-Jones and Ken Waller made a return voyage from London to Melbourne in record time with a twin-engine De Havilland Comet with a Rolex Oyster as their on-board chronometer.

With over 70 years of almost continuous production (save 2014 to 2016) and available in 31mm, 34mm, and 35mm case sizes, the Rolex Air-King was originally introduced in 1945 with the Ref. 4925. In terms of proportions, the Air-King models from the 1940s through to the early 2000s were smaller, making the 2007 Ref. 114200 the smallest men’s model one could own. Today, the Air-King sits 40mm wide, leaving the remaining sub-40mm category of Rolex timepieces to the Explorer I and Oyster Perpetual.

The latest generation of the Air-King uses the same case as the Milgauss. Therefore, it has the same vaunted resistance to magnetic fields, bringing the model firmly in line with its re-positioning as a proper pilot’s watch. The new Air-King uses an updated Calibre 3131, which is also fitted in the Milgauss, that features Rolex’s anti-magnetic Parachrom hairspring.

While the Air-King is the last remaining member of Rolex’s Air series, other watches from the brand had also been used by RAF pilots, including a stainless steel Rolex Oyster 3525 Chronograph by the famed POW escapee Flight Lieutenant Jack Williams, but we digress.

Conceived as a “working man’s watch” (mainly for military men), the Air-King once served as an entry-level Rolex Oyster model. Since Baselworld 2015, that position has been held by the Oyster Perpetual, which has also taken the Air-King’s old reference number. That said, despite its new price position as the second-least-expensive model, each Air-King Ref. 116900 is certified as a Superlative Chronometer like all Rolex watches.

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