Pretty much as soon as humans managed the (let’s face it, rather extraordinary) feat of getting an assortment of wood and metal to lift from the ground and travel through the air, they realised that having a way to keep time on board would be handy, if only for the bragging rights about how long they had been up there.  And so, the pilot’s watch was born.

Pilot’s watches represent so much of what we at Geckota love about watches. Born of necessity and driven by innovation, they are also undeniably stylish and, even with the skies now filled with planes of all shapes and sizes, a good pilot’s watch still carries a certain allure and gravitas.

So without further ado, here’s our ultimate guide to pilot’s watches, covering everything you need to know about their history, the defining features of the most iconic models.

A brief history of pilot’s watches

The golden age of aviation was at the very start of the twentieth century, when innovators such as the Wright Brothers were scrambling to become the first to achieve flight. One of these pioneers was a Brazilian named Alberto Santos Dumont. His flight in 1906 was the first to take off under its own power, and he received the coveted Deutsche- Archdeacon prize as a result. Around this time he is said to have complained to his friend, the watchmaker Louis Cartier, that it was bothersome to keep removing his pocket watch whilst flying. Cartier duly noted this, and came up with the first example of a pilot’s watch, the Cartier-Santos. Indeed, many claim that this is the first example of a men’s wristwatch, as watches of the time were still carried in the pocket.

 

As we’ll see, this design is far from what came to be typical for a pilot’s watch, and new, larger dials with added features soon became the norm, as flights became longer and pilots needed to make more calculations while airborne. But perhaps the most important influence on the design of pilot’s watches was World War II. Alongside developing the best aircraft, Allied and German forces put serious resources into developing the most effective timepiece. The functional aesthetic and hard wearing cases that are still a feature of many pilot’s watches today stem from this era when precision and performance were the only design considerations that mattered.

Into the 50s, the field opened up again for more experimental designs. The Breitling Navitimer (more on this later) was the first to introduce a slide rule that displayed distance in miles, kilometres and nautical miles, and watchmakers have continued in this vein, with some models now closer to resembling  the dials of a cockpit than the original pilot watch designs. But before we look at more modern examples, let’s visit some of the classics of the genre.

Iconic Pilot’s Watches

Zenith Montre d’Aeroneuf Type 20

 

We’ve already touched upon the original pilot’s watch, the Cartier Santos, but hot on the tails of this was a watch by Swiss brand Zenith, the Montre d’Aeroneuf Type 20. This was worn by the pilot Louis Bleriot when he completed a 37 minute flight across the English Channel. A well publicised comment about the precision of his timepiece was all it took to ensure the Zenith brand was forever more associated with aviation. Indeed, this watch became a template for other aviation watches to follow, with its a large, highly legible dial and prominent crown. Today, Zenith still make the Type 20 range, and are the only Swiss company permitted by law to include the word ‘pilot’ on the dial of their watches.

B-Uhr

As we have seen, the war had an important influence on pilot’s watch design. The pinnacle of this was the Beobachtungs-uhren, (translation: observation watch) more commonly referred to as the B-Uhr. Designed by a faction of the German air force, it was then produced by five different manufacturers to supply the Luftwaffe. Unlike the British army, where a timepiece was standard issue, the B-Uhrs were handed out to pilots before missions and collected again once they returned.

Design-wise, the watches were extremely large – 55m in diameter – and extremely tough, with the movement system protected by an iron core to guard against the magnetic forces that occurred when in flight. As with the Zenith, the watch was finished with a large crown. Today, several watchmakers pay homage to this classic design with their own versions of the B-uhr. IWC have the Big Pilot Watch, which retains the anti-magnetic core, while Stowa produces a slightly embellished version of the original, the Baumuster B.

Breitling Navitimer

Vintage Breitling 806 Navitimer - Image Credit: Geckota

Following the war, as aviation for pleasure or travel started to become more common, the market for pilot’s watches grew. Unrestricted by the need to be purely functional, and aided by developments in technology, watchmakers could now become more innovative in their designs for pilot’s watches. The Breitling Navitimer, which was released in 1955, is a prime example of this. The watch was still primarily a tool watch, with GMT and new slide rule features, though it was undeniably stylish as well. This combination of high end aesthetic and the most modern technology at the time saw it selected as the watch of choice for astronauts on the Mercury Atlas 7 mission to space. Breitling still makes a number of pilot’s watches based on these original designs.

Features of a pilot’s watch

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Looking at these classic pilot’s watches, you have probably started to notice a few features that are common to them all. While these days there are, of course, numerous variations in the designs and capabilities of pilot’s watches, most will have these five characteristics as standard:

Large, easily legible dial

The issue that confronted Alberto Santos Dumont in his pioneering flights remains for pilots today: they need to be able to quickly and clearly see the time to make any necessary calculations. So most pilot’s watches still feature a sizable dial with indices or numbers that contrast clearly with the background. Many will also have luminous hands and indices, in order that they remain legible at night

Prominent crown

They might not all be as oversized as the example of the Zenith we gave earlier, but a large crown is a classic feature of a pilot’s watch. This is because traditionally, pilots would wear gloves, and would need to be able to wind the crown without removing these gloves.

Extra markings on the bezel

Pilots need to perform calculations such as distance covered, fuel remaining and speed, so having extra markings on the bezel to help calculate this is a highly useful feature on a pilot’s watch.

GMT and dual time functions

For pilots traversing time zones, knowing the exact hour at their destination is a must, so modern pilot’s watches will often incorporate this feature.

Affordable pilot’s watches

We’ve looked at some examples of the classics, all of which come with a hefty price tag. But buying a pilot’s watch needn’t break the bank. These days, plenty of watchmakers combine the quintessential style of pilot’s watches with a more affordable price tag. Here are a few examples:

Geckota K-01 Type B 40mm Pilot’s Watch

The Geckota K-01 - Image Credit: Geckota

Harking back to the days when a pilot’s watch was one of their most essential tools, this watch combines the timeless elegance and style that characterises the classic pilots watches with some subtle modern touches such as anti-reflective coating on the chamfered crystal sapphire glass and the ultra-reliable ETA 2824 Swiss movement system. For true authenticity, the watch is finished with a German leather strap.

Click here to explore The Geckota K-01 Type B!

Citizen Promaster Skyhawk

With its highly functional dial and military inspired look, this is one for those who like multiple features on their pilot’s watch. The synchronised time adjustment feature can give the time in 44 cities worldwide, while the solar charging system means you will never be caught short.

Explore the Citizen Promaster Skyhawk here!

Laco Ausberg Type A German Automatic Pilot Watch

Laco are known for their commitment to creating designs based on the classic German pilot’s watches, and this model is a fine example. A simple, clearly legible dial, sturdy, stainless steel case and smart brown calf leather strap give this watch a feel of a classic timepiece for an affordable price.

So – there we have it. We hope this guide has given you more insight into what to look for in a pilot’s watch, and how the story of the pilot’s watch has evolved. To see more of our pilot’s watches and other adventure watches, browse our collection here.