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Horology, part 2 - The History of Pilot Watches

Updated: Jun 16

In the realm of horology, pilot watches and field watches stand as stalwart companions, with the two categories forging a bond between functionality and style. These timepieces are distinguished by their robustness, legibility in various lighting conditions, and a striking contrast between the dial, numerals, and hands. However, pilot watches have some unique elements, as we will learn below.


The genesis of the pilot watch is often attributed to Louis Cartier, who in 1904 tailored a timepiece for his friend, the pioneering Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont. It's worth noting that, despite its avian association, this inaugural pilot watch didn't conform to many of the conventional style elements we now associate with this category.


Alberto Santos Dumont
Alberto Santos Dumont

Another important watch for the category was launched just five years later. The Zenith's pilot made its debut on the wrist of Louis Blériot, as he flew an aircraft across the English Channel for the first time in history.


War Time

The Great War, which raged from 1914 to 1918, marked the inaugural battleground for the pilot watch. During this period, aviation was in its infancy, and pilots faced a myriad of challenges, including limited navigation tools and adverse weather conditions. It became evident that a reliable timepiece was crucial for synchronizing missions and ensuring safe returns. However, watch technology couldn't provide everything pilots needed at the time, so most of them used pocket watches like the Mark IV and the Mark V models attached to their cockpits.


The outbreak of World War II in 1939 ushered in a new era of aviation, marked by advanced technology and tactical innovation. Pilot watches evolved to meet the increasing demands of combat, resulting in the creation of iconic timepieces that remain admired to this day:


B-Uhr

The Beobachtungs-Uhr, or B-Uhr, was built by five companies - A. Lange & Söhne, IWC, Laco, Stowa, and Wempe - for the Luftwaffe following strict specifications:

  • Movement Reliability: It had to exemplify utmost precision, so all units were regulated and tested by the German Naval Observatory.

  • Anti-Magnetic Properties: Given the magnetic fields encountered in aviation, the movement had to be encased in an iron core.

  • Hacking Mechanism: This mechanism enabled pilots to halt the central seconds' hand simply by pulling the crown. This ingenious feature allowed for synchronized time-setting, a crucial capability for coordinating missions and operations.

  • Oversized Crown: The diamond or onion-shaped crown, notably larger than standard, was designed for ease of operation, even when wearing gloves. This ergonomic feature emphasized the practicality of the B-Uhr, ensuring that pilots could make precise adjustments with utmost ease, regardless of the conditions they faced.

  • Extra-Long Strap: A distinctive attribute of the B-Uhr was its double-riveted leather strap, significantly longer than conventional straps. This design allowed the watch to be comfortably worn over a leather flight jacket, ensuring a secure fit during flights.

  • Great legibility: Legibility was non-negotiable in the cockpit. The black dial, adorned with bold white Arabic numerals, provided clear and instantaneous readability. Flame-blued sword hands, coated with luminous material, ensured that time could be read at a glance, even in low-light situations.

  • Identifying Engravings: Each B-Uhr case bore the engraving "FL23883" on the left side, denoting its purpose as a navigation watch. The snap-off case back featured essential identifying information, including type (Bauart), production number (Gerät-Nr.), movement (Werk-Bez.), order number (Anforderz), and manufacturer (Hersteller).

It boasted an imposing 55mm diameter that dwarfed conventional wristwatches of the era. This size was a deliberate choice to assist pilots with legibility and to accommodate the robust hand-wound movement, typically found in pocket watches.


This wasn't the only model used by German pilots, as Hanhart and Tutima offered a few chronograph options. You can still buy modern versions of those watches, like Hanhart's 417ES.


Seikosha Tensoku

During the conflict, the company Seikosha (later to become Seiko) produced its own pilot watch for the Japanese army. The Tensoku shared many of the B-Uhr's characteristics, like a large size of 48.5mm, a black dial, and Arabic numerals coated in Radium for luminosity.


Weems 6B/159

As the war unfolded, pilots from the Allied forces received watches from renowned brands like IWC, Longines, Omega, and Zenith. Among the various models produced, the Weems 6B/159 stood out with its distinctive design.


These watches were notably smaller than the B-Uhrs, with the American version measuring just around 27mm and the one used by the RAF at 34mm. The most striking feature was the additional crown at 4 o'clock, which was used to lock and release the rotating bezel. To enhance legibility, most pieces featured light silver or white dials, as seen in the example below.


Longines Weems Watch
Longines Weems

Post War

After World War II, pilot watches started getting attention from watch enthusiasts, and new models were developed to capture the growing demand from civilians.


Over time, case sizes were reduced and new complications were created, like the GMT, which Rolex introduced in partnership with Pan Am Airways for pilots crossing many time zones on long-haul flights.


Rolex GMT
Rolex GMT

In the current landscape, a distinct dichotomy emerges. On one side, you encounter models hewing closely to the original blueprint, exemplified by the IWC Big Pilot's Watch. On the flip side, there are timepieces that seamlessly integrate modern elements, whether in the form of slide rule bezels or precision-driven chronographs, as exemplified by the Breitling Navitimer. This dual trajectory underscores the enduring legacy of pilot watches, simultaneously rooted in tradition and propelled forward by innovation.


Here are other important pilot watches that are worth mentioning. Each with its unique design and technological innovations has played a pivotal role in shaping the landscape of the category:


Zenith Pilot Series: With models like the Zenith Pilot Type 20, Zenith pays homage to the golden age of aviation with its bold, legible dials and robust construction.


Bell & Ross BR 01 Instrument Series: The BR 01 series, inspired by cockpit instruments, is a modern interpretation of pilot watches, renowned for their square cases and clear, easily readable displays.


Longines Avigation Watches: Longines' Avigation series harks back to their historic aviation timepieces, blending vintage aesthetics with modern precision.


Sinn 103 Series: Sinn's 103 collection, known for its robustness and functionality, pays tribute to classic pilot watches while incorporating modern technology and design.


Fortis Flieger: The Fortis Flieger exemplifies the enduring legacy of Fortis in aviation timekeeping, boasting a rich heritage dating back to the early 20th century.


Laco Augsburg: As one of the original manufacturers of German pilot watches, Laco's Augsburg model is a testament to their longstanding commitment to aviation horology.


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