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What is a pilot watch?

Rise high with style
Michael Herrmann
Jerry Zhang / Unsplash
22 May 2024

Timeless aviation masterpieces for the wrist

A pilot’s watch is more than just a timepiece. It is a timeless symbol of aviation, embodying the history and fascination of flight. With their distinctive design and functional features, these special watches have acquired a very special significance for pilots and watch enthusiasts around the globe since their creation. Whether as a practical tool, a collector’s item, or a stylish accessory for men and women, pilot’s watches will surely continue to capture the hearts of watch enthusiasts both on the ground and high up in their flying boxes. We reveal why.

The beginnings of the pilot watch

The pilot’s watch – also known as the pilot’s watch or aviator watch – was developed in the early days of aviation. It was already in use before the First World War, when daredevil pilots in open cockpits, wrapped in thick overalls, were confronted with new challenges and, for the first time, time measurement also gained importance in the air as a basis for accurate navigation. Since that time, pilot watches have often been large, easy-to-read wristwatches that can even be operated with gloves and aviator goggles – initially equipped with long leather straps so they could be worn over flight jackets, today often fitted with a robust steel bracelet. Large crowns and buttons, easy-grip bezels, clear color contrasts, and fluorescent hands and indices ensure optimal handling and legibility of the ticking companions on your wrist, even in turbulent air and difficult lighting conditions.

The Pilot’s Watch is more than just a timepiece on the wrist – it tells the story of aviation and embodies the dream of flying.

Die Fliegeruhr ist mehr als nur ein Zeitmesser am Handgelenk – sie erzählt die Geschichte der Luftfahrt und verkörpert  den Traum vom Fliegen.
IWC / Pilot's Watch Chronograph Spitfire
IWC / Pilot’s Watch Chronograph Spitfire

The characteristic design of a pilot’s watch

The most characteristic feature of a typical pilot’s watch is undoubtedly its dial design. It is characterized by clear, high-contrast numbers and indices, which can be perceived without any problems even under difficult conditions and can be read at first glance in the truest sense of the word. Often, the hour markers are very large and strikingly designed, while the minute markers, on the other hand, are depicted somewhat more discreetly. This design allows for quick and accurate timekeeping – a crucial and often vital function for pilots during their flight.

The bezel – more than just a rotating ring

An important detail of many pilot watches is the so-called bezel, i.e. the outer ring rotatably attached to the timepiece and often equipped with a tachymeter scale or a slide rule function. Depending on the design, this allows the pilot to mark a specific time and flight duration or even make various calculations such as speed, fuel consumption and flight time directly on his watch without having to rely on other aids – such as a calculator or a navigation computer. In addition, the bezel also gives the pilot’s watch a distinctive look and emphasizes the characteristic design of this timeless timepiece. Thus, the bezel combines both practical and aesthetic aspects.

This is how the slide rule function of a pilot watch works
Breitling / YouTube

Robust and reliable timepieces

Robustness and reliability of a pilot watch are also of great importance. The timepiece must be able to withstand the high stresses that can occur during flying, such as rapid temperature changes, strong vibrations and high air pressure fluctuations. For this reason, pilot watches are usually made of high-quality materials such as stainless steel or titanium and equipped with shock-absorbing mechanisms to protect their delicate movements from excessive acceleration forces, vibrations and shocks. In addition, many pilot watches are not only waterproof, but even anti-magnetic in design to protect sensitive on-board instruments from interference.

The pilot’s watch reminds us that we can take to the skies to cross borders and scale new heights.

Die Fliegeruhr erinnert uns daran, dass wir in den Himmel aufbrechen können, um Grenzen zu überschreiten und neue Höhen zu erklimmen.
Breitling / Navitimer B01 Chronograph
Breitling / Navitimer B01 Chronograph

Evolution and modern functions

Over the decades, pilot watches have always evolved technically. Not only did the timepieces become more and more accurate, but they also added more and more new functions – such as chronograph functions and separate displays for different time zones. Even emergency transmitters for the worst case scenario, flight computer functions as well as GPS positioning are integrated in special models for even more extensive information and assistance. Nevertheless, the classic pilot watch design with its unmistakable dial and clear markings has remained essentially unchanged to this day.

Precision for adventurers and pioneers

The significance of the pilot’s watch, however, goes far beyond its purely functional role as a tool for pilots. It has become a symbol of aviation and stands equally for adventure, precision and pioneering spirit. Pilot watches are appreciated by many people who share the fascination and style of aviation culture. These distinctive timepieces symbolize the courage and determination of the men and women who take to the skies to scale new heights and cross borders. They tell stories of unforgettable flying adventures and inspire us to keep pushing our own limits and discovering new horizons.

The pilot watch in the collector’s world

Pilot watches have a special place in the world of watch enthusiasts. Due to their unique aesthetics and historical background, they are highly sought after by collectors. Vintage pilot watches from decades past exude a very special charm and often fetch high prices at auctions. Rare models or limited editions are also traded as a valuable investment. When choosing a pilot watch as an investment, it is especially important to consider factors such as the brand, the manufacturer, the year of manufacture, the condition of the watch, and the rarity of the model. Careful research and advice from experts can help make the right choice and avoid bad investments.

The Pilot’s Watch combines a spirit of adventure, precision and timeless elegance to create a unique witness to the pioneering days of aviation.

Die Fliegeruhr vereint Abenteuerlust, Präzision und zeitlose Eleganz zu einem einzigartigen Zeitzeugen der Pionierzeit der Luftfahrt.
Stowa / Flieger Klassik Sport Baumuster B
Stowa / Pilot Classic Sport Baumuster B

The famous observation watch

One of the most famous pilot watches is undoubtedly the so-called observation watch, or B-watch for short, which was worn by pilots of the German Air Force during World War II. These timepieces are large, robust, very easy to read and equipped with a high-precision hand-wound movement. While B-watches were once an indispensable part of pilots’ equipment, today they have become highly sought-after collector’s items. Moreover, over time, various watch manufacturers have created their own interpretations of the observation watch, with each model having its own charm and character. By the way, the classic B-watch has no manufacturer or brand indication on its dial.

Symbiosis of design and functionality

The distinctive dial design and clear contrasts of the pilot watch have triggered a real design revolution in the watch industry. Many manufacturers are inspired by the characteristic features of pilot’s chronometers and integrate them into their own collections and models. The result is precise timepieces with a touch of adventure and aviation romance – often with fluid boundaries to fashion, sports and diving watches. Aerospace instruments also benefit from the design of pilot watches. Even modern smartwatches and digital flight instruments draw on their heritage to ensure both optimal readability and intuitive handling. To this day, this connection between tradition and technology creates a perfect symbiosis of classic design and modern functionality.

The pilot watch – a timeless symbol of aviation

To this day, the pilot watch is a timeless symbol of aviation. It embodies the values of adventure, innovation and precision. Although modern aircraft are equipped with sophisticated navigation systems, the aviator watch is a popular accessory for pilots and aviation enthusiasts around the globe. It reminds us that the fascination for flying and the longing for freedom and discovery is still alive in all of us. The pilot’s watch creates a link between the past and present of aviation and will undoubtedly remain an important symbol of this exciting industry in the future. Whether a practical tool, collector’s item, or stylish wrist accessory, the pilot’s watch will continue to capture the hearts of pilots and watch enthusiasts worldwide both on the ground and in the air as a timeless masterpiece.

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