The connection between flying and horology may not be obvious at first. But if you look into the history of both industries, you would notice that the latter has been an important part of aviation. In fact, it has become a staple for air force pilots for many years. Governments even went as far as setting a strict standard on the pilot watches issued to their respective air force and soldiers. This just goes to show how deep the relationship between the two fields is.
From then till now, many airmen rely on pilot watches to aid their flights. Some of the legendary watch manufacturers whose pilot watches proved helpful in the air force and military include IWC, Breitling, and Bell & Ross, to name a few. These timepieces aid pilots in getting vital information such as fuel consumption, rate of climb or descent, and other necessary calculations required during flying.
It should also be noted that even civilian frequent fliers can benefit from these pilot watches. While they wouldn’t likely need the more complicated features, a World Timer or a simple GMT watch, like the Seiko Astron or Rolex Air Dweller, is more efficient in telling different time zones. So whether you’re an experienced aviator or a travel bug, check out which pilot watches are best for you by reading our guide below.
Features to Look For in a Good Pilot Watch
One of the most important things to consider when looking for your next pilot watch is legibility. If you’re a pilot, your watch’s dial should be readable at a glance, especially when you’re busy manning the cockpit.
To find a legible watch, choose the ones with hour markers that come in large fonts, such as the Zenith Pilot or Bell & Ross Instruments. To add, check if the lume is bright enough for you to read the time even in low-light conditions. Apart from the convenience that it brings, it should also offer safety and security.
Dual Time/GMT Functions
As a frequent flier, it can sometimes be a hassle to adjust your watch every now and then. That brings us to the importance of a Dual Time or GMT feature of a watch. Having these functions allows you to read two time zones simultaneously.
While some watches like world timers can display a lot of different time zones, having a dual time feature is sufficient for most frequent fliers.
When flying, there’s a possibility of encountering magnetic fields that can damage your watch. To combat this problem, it is recommended to check the watch’s anti-magnetic properties. When looking at the specs sheet, check if the movement is protected by a Faraday cage or if the components are made with silicium or magnetic alloys.
A chronograph function is one of the most useful things a pilot watch can have as it has a lot of aviation applications. For example, it can be used to time mission briefings, elapsed times, etc. Opt for a flyback chronograph as it is more suited for pilots as it is more convenient to use. Instead of pushing for more buttons just to reset a timer, a flyback chrono requires you to only push one.
Slide rule bezel
The slide rule bezel is a more complicated feature than the chronograph. However, it can do a lot more in-flight computations needed by pilots. A few things it can do are add, multiply, calculate fuel consumption, and even the rate of climb or descent. Indeed, this is a very important feature that every professional pilot must look for.
15 of the Best Pilot Watches for the Flying Enthusiasts
1. Cartier Santos-Dumont
What better way to start this list than with the first-ever pilot watch? Despite its unique exterior, the Cartier Santos-Dumont is considered the first watch to be worn while flying. It all started when Louis Cartier made a watch for his aviator friend Alberto Santos-Dumont when he complained about fumbling for his pocket watch while piloting an aircraft. Since then, a lot of pilots started strapping their watches to their wrists.
Among this list of pilot watches, the Cartier Santos-Dumont is the most simple. In fact, it is a time-only watch. As expected, this watch bears an Art Deco style that’s commonly seen in Cartier watches. Its hour markers are made with Roman numerals, a signature look of the brand. This makes it an ideal timepiece for frequent fliers who go on international business trips.
Unlike other Cartier models, this one uses a manual mechanical movement. In particular, it is called the Cartier Calibre 430 MC. It has a total of 18 jewels, beats at a frequency of 21,600 VPH, and can make the watch tick for up to 36 hours.
Whether you like it or not, the Cartier Santos-Dumont has a special place in the history of both aviation and horology.
2. Seiko Astron
Apart from being the world’s first quartz watch, the Seiko Astron line is also known as one of the most accurate watches ever. As the decades went by, the Astron line has developed more and more technologies that a lot of pilots and world travellers find handy or even essential. Moreover, the collection also features a GPS function where the watches receive signals from different satellites for added accuracy.
The Astron 8X Dual Time watch from Seiko makes travelling from one country to another a breeze by bringing a Dual-Time calibre to the table. With this movement, your watch will adjust to your current timezone with just a push of a button. Apart from that, you also have the option to read two timezones at once — your home timezone and the timezone where you currently are.
Furthermore, the Seiko Astron 8X Dual Time’s dial contains other information you may need. A few of those are the AM/PM indication, the day, and the date windows. These are all essential information for frequent fliers.
Lastly, its bracelet is composed of individually-designed links for maximum comfort. To add, they are tapered perfectly to the wrist so you won’t feel uncomfortable even during long hours of flights.
3. Sinn Instrument Chronograph
Sinn is extremely popular especially when it comes to German watchmaking. In fact, it was founded by a former World War II veteran and flight instructor named Helmut Sinn. During its early years, Sinn specialised in making pilot chronographs and clocks for the aeroplanes’ cockpits.
The Sinn Instrument Chronograph (903 ST) is a navigator watch with a lot of features to offer. Apart from the basic complications like day and date, it also has a chronograph timer, an internal rotating bezel, and a logarithmic scale. These features will surely come in handy for the professional pilot for calculating various information.
Furthermore, it is powered by the Sellita SW 500 calibre movement that is self-winding. It offers a power reserve of up to 44 hours and can be viewed through the crystal caseback.
To conclude, the Sinn 903 ST Instrument Chronograph has a lot of tools that a pilot may need during a flight. That is why it’s dubbed as the “Navigation Chronograph” watch.
4. Bell & Ross Instruments
As its name suggests, the Bell & Ross Instruments collection aims to recreate the look of an aeroplane cockpit. Apart from that, the collection is aptly named because the brand believes that these timepieces are instruments that will help people throughout the day whether they’re a frequent flier or a professional pilot.
The Bell & Ross Instruments BR05 boasts an urban look and feel. Like the brand’s other collection, BR03, it has the signature round dial on a square case. Indeed, this shape is what Bell & Ross became popular.
Moving on to the dial, this watch is faithful to the brand’s promise of legibility, functionality, and precision. Its large Arabic hour markers contrast well against the black background. Apart from that, the indexes are coated with SuperLuminova material so you can still read the watch properly in the dark.
Under the hood, it uses the calibre BR-CAL.321, which is an automatic movement. It is based on the Sellita SW-300 with a few modifications to fit Bell & Ross’ specs. A few useful features are the hacking seconds, hand-winding, and a power reserve of 42 hours.
5. Omega Speedmaster
The Omega Speedmaster needs no introduction as it is one of the most iconic watches in history. It is the timepiece that the Apollo 11 astronauts were wearing when they landed on the moon. While Omega kept a close relationship with NASA, these watches also became popular with frequent fliers and pilots due to its jam-packed features and technology.
If you’re looking for a durable chronograph watch, look no further than the Omega Speedmaster. Indeed, this watch has reached the moon! Furthermore, it is the only watch that’s certified by NASA for use on an EVA (Extra-Vehicular Activity).
On the watch’s face, you’ll see three sub-dials. The chronograph sub-dials feature the following: a 30-minute counter, a 12-hour counter, and a seconds counter. Apart from those, it also features a tachymeter scale that’s set on the outer bezel of the watch.
At its heart, it uses the Calibre 1863. As expected, it is made with high-grade components with a rhodium-plated finish. It has about 48 hours of power reserve and 50m of water resistance. Overall, it is an accurate watch that will meet the demands of globetrotters and pilots.
6. IWC Pilot
Staying true to its name, the IWC Pilot collection is an airman’s trusty companion. In fact, IWC has been producing pilot watches since the 1930s. Up to now, the models included in this collection feature a lot of similarities with their vintage counterparts. With that said, these watches are loved by military and civilian aviators alike.
As mentioned above, the IWC Pilot watch borrows a lot of similarities from vintage pilot watches. This makes it a great choice for retro lovers who want to replicate the timepieces of the past as much as possible. In fact, it resembles the “B-Uhr” type of Flieger watches.
That being said, this model featured above sports a bigger-than-average size of 46.2mm. While still quite far from the required 55mm of original pilot watches, it is a nice compromise between comfort and style. Apart from that, it uses an onion-shaped crown that’s both aesthetical and easy to use.
Moreover, the movement that this watch uses is upgraded. The Calibre 51111 features a vaunted Pellaton winding system and an ample power reserve. In particular, it can power the watch for up to 7 days. A very useful feature to have if you’re too busy flying around the globe.
7. Longines Heritage Avigation
The Longines Heritage collection aims to showcase classic timepieces with modern upgrades. This is why most of the models in this line feature retro styling and Art Deco aesthetic. One of those models mimics the look of a vintage military watch worn by the US Air Force in the 1930s.
As mentioned above, the Longines Heritage Avigation Big Eye is based on vintage military watches. In fact, it shares a lot of similarities with Type XX vintage military chronographs. When it comes to size, this aviation watch from Longines is 41mm across – a size is considered as just right and will fit a lot of wrist sizes.
Moving on to the dial, we have a typical chronograph layout. As seen in the picture above, there are three sub-dials on the bottom half of the watch. These are the running seconds, the 12-hour measure, and the 30-minute scale. On the last sub-dial, the hash marks fall every 3 minutes instead of the usual 5. This detail was borrowed from vintage pilot watches as these specific intervals help pilots time their standard turns.
The watch uses the movement called the L688.2. It is an automatic chronograph movement that features a column wheel. It beats at a frequency of 4 Hz and offers a power reserve of up to 54 hours. Overall, this is considered a reliable movement that will serve you for plenty of years to come.
8. Rolex Sky Dweller
For years, Rolex has always been one of the most sought-after brands when it comes to GMT watches. As the story goes, they started with the GMT Master which was launched in the 1950s. Since then, their reputation for making watches for pilots has only grown stronger. One example is the Rolex Sky Dweller , which, like the GMT Master, is also popular within the flying community.
The Rolex Sky Dweller, which was launched in 2012, is one of the modern Rolex models you have to check out. As its name suggests, it was made to be durable, practical, and easy to use especially when navigating the skies.
A lot can be said about its features. Of course, it has the dual time-zone function that every pilot watches must-have. The second time zone even has an independent hour hand that can be set in one-hour jumps. Apart from that, it has an annual calendar that is fairly easy to use.
Additionally, the Sky Dweller has a third feature called the “Ring Command Bezel”. This ring can be set in three positions to select the different functions of the watch. Although it takes a bit of getting used to, the benefits of this bezel can be extremely useful for professional pilots and frequent fliers.
All things considered, the Rolex Sky Dweller is one of the more complicated dual time watches around. Despite its complications, you can reap a lot of benefits from it once you learn how to operate it.
9. Breitling Navitimer
One of the most iconic timepieces in aviation history is the Breitling Navitimer. It is an automatic chronograph that has an integrated flight computer. Until now, pilots from different parts of the globe are still using this iconic watch from Breitling. In fact, some Air Force units even use it as regular equipment for their airmen.
When looking at the Breitling Navitimer, the first thing you might think of is that it’s complicated. True enough, its dial displays a lot of numbers and trackers. But those are not just for aesthetics as they are used by navigators to compute various formulas.
Perhaps its most important feature is the slide-rule bezel. With it, together with the chronograph function, you can measure information such as average speed, ground speed, rate of climb, or descent. Apart from those, you can perform calculations such as multiplication, division, and even currency conversion. Moreover, you can use the bezel as a substitute for a compass in case you need to know your position.
If you’re set on getting a complicated pilot watch that has a strong history, you can’t go wrong with the Breitling Navitimer as it has everything that you will need.
10. Zenith Pilot
Even inside the watch community, Zenith is not as popular as Rolex, Omega, and the like. This is quite ironic because this brand has a strong pedigree that dates back to the 20th century just when aviation was still new. In fact, the first man to fly across the English Channel in 1909 was wearing a Zenith Pilot watch.
The first thing to notice about the Zenith Pilot Type 20 Chronograph is its rugged design. It uses a 45mm solid brass case that is highly polished. To some people, the case reminds them of a steampunk aesthetic. Apart from that, its crown is oversized and onion-shaped to replicate the look of vintage watches.
Meanwhile, the matte black dial consists of large Arabic numeral hour markers. It also has a railroad-style minutes and split-seconds track. To add, the bi-compax layout features a 30-minute chronograph register and a running seconds sub-dial.
Under the hood, it boasts the Zenith El Primero calibre 4069. This movement has 35 jewels and beats at a frequency of 36,000 VPH, which makes it a high-precision chronograph. Lastly, it offers a 50-hour power reserve.
11. Vacheron Constantin Overseas
You can expect nothing less than perfect from Vacheron Constantin. It is, after all, one of the Holy Trinity of watch brands. With that said, Vacheron Constantin is one of the oldest and most trusted watchmakers in the world. And apart from creating classic dress watches, they ventured into more sporty models like the ones seen in the Overseas collection. This collection conveys the spirit of travel, making it a perfect fit for jet setters and pilots.
The best thing about the Vacheron Constantin Overseas is that it is elegant yet casual. I’m sure a lot of travellers will appreciate the versatility that the watch offers. But aside from that, it has a lot of features that will come in handy while flying around the globe.
For one, it features a column-wheel chronograph as seen on the 3, 6, and 9 o’clock positions. These are the 30-minute counter, the 12-hour counter, and the small seconds. And between 4 and 5 o’clock is the date window.
As far as movement goes, there is no doubt that the 5200 calibre is of high quality. It has 54 jewels and can power the watch for up to 52 hours. Lastly, it beats at a frequency of 4 Hz that provides high accuracy for your timing needs.
12. Tissot T-Sport
The Swiss brand Tissot has been making watches since the 1850s and has made early ties with sports timekeeping. In fact, it is one of the most famous brands that can be seen in different sporting events like BMX World Championship and Tour de France. With that said, the timekeeping prowess of their models is impressive enough to be worn by aviators.
The PRC 200 Automatic Chronograph model from the Tissot T-Sport collection is an affordable chronograph that gives you a lot of value for your money. To demonstrate, it has a 6-hour totaliser, a running seconds tracker, and a 30-minute counter. It also has a subtle tachymeter scale that can be found on the edge of the dial.
Furthermore, the chronograph calibre it uses is decent enough. It uses the Tissot C01.211 calibre movement, which was made in partnership with ETA. This movement has 15 jewels and can power the watch for up to 45 hours. In addition, you can view this calibre through the crystal glass at the back of the watch.
Overall, this model is a great choice if your budget is quite limited. Its chronograph functions and reliable calibre are enough to keep you company while you’re out flying across the world.
13. Tudor Heritage Advisor
In case you didn’t know, Tudor is a sister company of Rolex, which is why you can expect the same level of quality from them. At first, they focused on producing watches for divers and explorers. But later, they branched out into other types of watches like pilot watches, chronographs, etc. The Tudor Heritage Advisor, for instance, is a modern version of their classic alarm watch from the 1950s.
If you’re an entrepreneur who spends a lot of time flying on business trips, you will appreciate the Tudor Heritage Advisor. A lot of enthusiasts even describe it as having an assistant on your wrist due to its mechanical alarm complication. While its feature is a bit unique, a lot of people will find it handy while travelling.
Delving deeper into the details, the watch uses an ETA 2892 calibre movement. It has a custom alarm module that’s developed in-house by the brand. Fortunately, using the alarm feature is easy to understand. The crowns are easy to fidget with, including an on-off switch that’s located at the 8 o’clock position.
Indeed, this watch is a perfect companion for busy travellers. Its alarm complication is handy when you want to avoid being late to flights and business meetings. Apart from that, its elegant design is suitable for business casual to formal settings.
14. TAG Heuer Autavia
Although TAG Heuer is mainly known for making motorsports watches, they also make excellent pilot watches. In particular, the TAG Heuer Autavia collection was inspired by aeroplane cockpits. Apart from that, this collection is known for delivering high precision and exceptional reliability. Truly, watches from this collection are perfect for today’s flying enthusiasts.
Pilot watches prioritise readability and the TAG Heuer Autavia does the same. The sparse dial design was made to be read easily in low-light conditions. Its Arabic hour markers are large and its hands are coated with SuperLuminova.
Performance-wise, its Calibre 5 movement is COSC-certified. This means it should produce an accuracy of -4 or +6 seconds per day. It also has a special hairspring that makes it more resistant to magnetism and temperature deviation. As mentioned above, resistance to magnetism is especially important when you’re frequently flying.
To conclude, the TAG Heuer Autavia is the brand’s successful take on modern pilot watches. Apart from its exceptional movement, its classic design is something that will make other people’s heads turn.
15. Hamilton Khaki Aviation
Although Hamilton was originally known for making timepieces for the Army, it also branched out into the Air Force. In fact, it has been making pilot watches for over a century now and has become really popular in the flying community. With that said, the brand has a reputation for being accurate and reliable. Whether you’re looking for a GMT watch or a Pilot’s Chronograph, the Hamilton Khaki Aviation collection boasts a lot of timepieces that will meet the professional pilot’s demands.
The Hamilton Khaki Pilot Day Date successfully recreates the look of a pilot watch back in the 20th century. Indeed, aside from a few modifications, this model looks a lot like pilot watches from before. While it definitely showcases the aesthetic of vintage aviation timepieces, it also uses modern materials that are more durable and better suited for today’s standards.
One of its upgrades is its case material – made out of stainless steel and is perfectly proportioned at 42mm so it can fit a lot of different wrist sizes. Meanwhile, its dial comes in an attractive black and tan colourway. The minute markers come in a large Arabic numeral font and are easy to read.
Lastly, it uses the H-40 calibre movement, which has an extended power reserve of up to 80 hours. This is almost double as compared to the market standard and is a very useful feature for busy people.
Whether you’re a professional pilot or a frequent flier, there’s no denying the benefits that pilot watches can bring. From the more complicated features like calculating fuel consumption to the basic things like viewing two time zones at once, a pilot watch is your best bet.
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