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How the Pilot's Watch Came to Be

by Murat Balci on June 08, 2023

A pilot's watch, in the simplest terms possible, is just another tool used by pilots. The watches in question are essentially standard wristwatches, but they have been modified to include features and functions more appropriate for those in the mile-high club, such as oversized bezels and extreme legibility.

Like the diver's watch, which has been around since the beginning of time, the pilot's watch has a long and storied history, beginning at the turn of the twentieth century and reaching its zenith among wartime aviators.

A pilot's Watch Is...What?

Most people would argue that there is no agreed-upon or universally accepted definition of a pilot's watch. We contend that a timepiece is a pilot's watch if it is designed specifically for use by pilots of aircraft.

In addition to the standard features of a chronograph and a simple crown, a pilot's watch may also feature a number of other complications useful for tracking flight time and distance.

A Look At the Pilot's Watch's Defining Features

What constitutes the ideal pilot's watch varies from company to company. A large and legible dial, luminosity, an oversized crown and extra bezel markings, a dual time or GMT function, a 12 o'clock orientation triangle, and the flyback chronograph are five features shared by the vast majority of pilot's watches.

When flying in adverse weather, it's always helpful to have a clock with large, easy-to-read dials. Luminosity features are especially helpful in improving readability at night. The pilot's watch is easily recognizable by its oversized crown and Arabic numerals. Pilots in the past often wore gloves while in the air, so watches had to be designed with larger crowns to accommodate them.

Examples include the Longines Avigation BigEye, which has a 41mm dial with large, legible markings and indices. The 54-hour power reserve and the watch's large buttons make it an excellent choice for transatlantic flights.

Longines Avigation BigEye

As well as the 12 o'clock equilateral upright orientation triangle, which allows a pilot to instantly interpret the time regardless of their current orientation in the air, the bezel features markings for various calculations such as fuel burn and wind correction angles.

The reissued IWC Automatic Spitfire, originally made for the British Royal Air Force in 1948 and widely regarded as one of the best pilot watches available today, was originally issued to the British Royal Air Force. With the aid of the 12 o'clock orientation triangle and other markings on the bezel, pilots can read the time regardless of their position in the cockpit.

Time Zone Conversion The single-button flyback chronograph not only helps with navigation and grid searches, but it can also keep track of multiple time zones or UTC.

We've reached the more advanced level, where you'll find features like Dual Time/GMT, flyback chronographs, and even onboard computers (also called Navitmers). Rolex pioneered Dual Time/GMT functionality in wristwatches. The Rolex GMT-Master was originally designed for the commercial pilots of Pan Am (Pan American World Airways), but it quickly became a favorite among pilots of all stripes.

More complicated still is the Breitling Navitimer B01 Chronograph 46, which looks like it was taken from a 747's control panel. It has a mechanical caliber certified as a chronometer, so it can keep track of time, and it also has a Navitimer, which allows it to perform arithmetic calculations on the fly.

This feature, which is essentially an onboard computer, employs a rotating bezel to perform elementary arithmetic and mathematics.

A Brief Background on the Pilot's Watch

You need the right equipment to get the job done when you're thousands of feet in the air and braving the insane conditions of high-altitude flying. Many early 20th-century pilots struggled with pocket watches that broke easily due to inadequate technology. Not until 1904 did the first pilot's watch appear, and even then pilots had to strap them to their wrists or thighs.

Louis Cartier was asked to create a custom watch for his close friend Alberto Santos-Dumont. The Cartier Santos was the world's first pilot's watch, and it was a gift to the Brazilian aviator.

Santos-Dumont needed a way to keep time without taking his hands off the controls that were as accurate and reliable as the planes they were piloting. The Cartier Santos, widely regarded as the first wristwatch, served as a precursor to the incredible timepieces we have today.

Breitling, for example, has included features like a circular slide rule and chronograph to keep up with the increasing complexity of modern air travel. However, other companies, such as IWC, Bell & Ross, and Longines, eventually joined the effort to provide pilots with the equipment they required during the war.

As expected, the Pilot's Watch's most notable accomplishment was venturing into space, beyond Earth's atmosphere. A distinction earned by the Omega Speedmaster (ref. CK 2998) in 1962 when it was worn by astronaut Walter Schirra on the "Sigma 7" mission as part of the Mercury Program.

Even though history is rich with marvels of analog horology and intricate mechanical advancements, in 2021, it will be impossible to ignore the digital revolution. For this reason, the Garmin D2 Delta PX is a popular choice among professional pilots for a modern watch.

The device is much simpler to use than a Navitimer, despite having many of the same features. These features include GPS navigation, intelligent notifications, flight planning, an altimeter, and automatic flight logging. It's a smartwatch through and through, but it has some of the analog charms that make pilot's watches so trendy right now.

What comes next in the development of the pilot's watch will be fascinating to observe.

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Fossil ME3119 Pilot 54 Silver Dial Men’s Automatic Watch

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