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A History of The Pilot Watch

A History of The Pilot Watch

The pilot watch is one of the most popular watch styles (or genres) that circulates the watch-sphere (we made this up). Today, instead of rounding up some of the best pilot watches available, we thought we would do a dive into the history of the pilot watch — Men’s Folio style.

A trio of limited edition Cartier Santos Dumont recently unveiled at Watches & Wonders 2020

Similar to dive and field watches, pilot watches were designed (in a way) for the World Wars. However, it was the discovery of motorised aviation and a friendship between a Brazilian and Frenchman that paved the way for the first pilot watch. In 1904, dapper aviator Santos Dumont requested a wristwatch from his friend Louis Cartier that he could wear on his manned flights. The eventual design was a squared-faced watch with exposed screws on the bezel which was later officially launched and named the Cartier Santos in 1911. The Cartier Santos served the purposes of calculating fuel consumption, air speed, lift capacity, navigation and finally, as well as basic timekeeping. 

John Mayer's IWC Big Pilot 5002 by Hodinkee
Breguet Type 20
Vintage Lange & Söhne B-Uhr by Antiquorum

The purpose of aeroplanes later changed during the World Wars when they were used as weapons; watches became navigational tools for precise and coordinated attacks. It necessitated an evolution in the watch designs that soon became synonymous with pilot watches. As a result, some of the most iconic pilot watches surfaced, from the IWC Mark series and Big Pilot (popularised by John Mayer) to the Type 20 and 21 Breguet chronographs and the German (Lange, Wempe, Stowa and Laco) B-Uhren navigation watches.

The Oversized Case and that Triangle

Schematics of a B-Uhren watch

Watch cases are large for the purpose of legibility — plain and simple. Squinting at a small watch dial may lead to inaccurate calculations that may result in a failed mission or worse, death. Imagine you are Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, the enemy is raining gunfire on you, and you need to calculate a precise time (distance divided by speed in case you forgot) needed for Iceman to shoot your pursuer in a coordinated flyby. You need to read the time faster than you can say “I feel the nee…”.

The 12 o’clock triangle, known as the orientation triangle, shares the same spirit of legibility when it was conceptualised. Prolonged flying can lead to spatial disorientation, hence the need for specialised cockpit instruments, which is what their wristwatch happens to be as well. The orientation triangle was to allow pilots to immediately figure out the 12 o’clock indication in relation to the upright orientation of the dial. Luminescent material is often applied to it as well as other indexes for enhanced nighttime readability. 

The Large Conical Crown

Zenith Pilot Type 20 Rescue

The cockpits of early planes were unheated, which meant pilots had to endure harsh altitude elements. This explains the thick leather bomber jackets and accompanying gloves designed for flight. Some of us even struggle with gripping a regular sized cylindrical crown with our bare hands, doing so with gloves would virtually be impossible. Hence the importance of the ergonomically designed conical crowns. The shape of the cone acts as a natural groove for the pilot to grip and pull when adjusting the time in new time zones.

Other Finer Details

Apart from the obvious aesthetic designs are the technical improvements that allow the watch to survive harsh conditions. An anti-magnetic shield within the watch case wraps the movement to prevent unwanted disruptions to maintain precision. The hacking seconds (the seconds hand stops when adjusting time) allows precise time setting to enhance time synchronisation between the squadron and headquarters. Finally, the crystal is coated with a layer of anti-reflective material and secured against displacement caused by sudden pressure changes.

This covers the basics of the archetypal pilot watch, complications were later added to enhance the instrumental value and proposition of the wrist watch.

The Chronograph

Longines Avigation BigEye

The chronograph has added relevance in a pilot watch because of its ability to record elapsed time which aided in aeronavigational calculations. A flyback chronograph is an added bonus if available as a running chronograph can be instantly reset without first stopping it.


Rolex GMT-Master II

The GMT complication was first conceptualised for commercial pilots of Pan Am (Pan American World Airways) by Rolex to aid distinguishing time through 24-hour formats. It was later modified to be able to track separate time zones independently.

The Slide Rule

Breitling Navitimer B01

The slide rule bezel is made popular by Breitling which we will not attempt to get into because of its sheer complexity. It can be used to mathematically calculate literally anything and everything from fuel consumption to your dinner GST and service charge. Google it if you are really keen to be schooled in arithmetics during this Circuit Breaker (Singapore’s version of lockdown) period.