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10-15 min min read·June 8, 2020

Best Pilot Watches - The Best Travel Watches on the Market

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"There’s No Watch Without a Pilot Watch"

In case you didn’t know, the first wristwatch ever made was a Pilot’s watch. A Pilot’s watch has now evolved into a watch that usually features a large and legible dial, lume markings, an oversized crown, bold minute markers, and a dual time or GMT feature. However, back in 1904, Alberto Santos-Dumont, a Brazilian aviator, only needed a way to tell the time in the cockpit without removing his hands from the plane’s controls. Dumont reached out to his friend, Louis Cartier, to see if he could fulfill his request in curating a timepiece that was both reliable and functional while he was in flight. Subsequently, Cartier came to Dumont with a small gold watch with a square face and exposed screws — ultimately creating the Cartier Santos Dumont. The Santos Dumont was able to be strapped to Dumont’s wrist, as a result creating the first wristwatch and pilot watch ever made.
As advancements in aviation technology were made, watchmakers, too, needed to evolve to meet the new needs of the aviation pioneers. Shortly after Cartier produced the first wristwatch for Santos-Dumont, Swiss watchmaker, Zenith also became recognized as a Pilot’s watchmaker. Zenith received widespread popularity in 1909 after Louis Bleriot became the first individual to fly across the English Channel. Upon his completion of this groundbreaking act, Bleriot was quoted as saying, “I am very satisfied with the Zenith watch, which I usually use, and I cannot recommend it too highly to people who are looking for precision.” This quote caused Zenith to become the primary manufacturer for pilot watches and navigation instruments. Furthermore, the design implemented in Bleriot’s Zenith became the staple design found in today’s Pilot watch: a black enamel dial, large Arabic numerals, and a large onion-shaped crown. The design just made sense — the bold Arabic numerals and high contrast dial made it easy to read at just a glance and the large onion crown ensured quick, easy adjustment while wearing gloves. Furthermore, the large onion crown made it easier for pilots to tuck their gloves under the watch. Today, Zenith still manufactures some of the best Pilot watches on the market while staying true to its foundational design elements.
Since Cartier and Zenith’s introduction, many other manufacturers have made their own design imprints on the Pilot watch. Hamilton, a US manufacturer now based in Switzerland, made its iteration on the Pilot watch back in 1919 when the US made Hamilton the official watch of all commercial intercontinental airline travel. Furthermore, during WWII, Hamilton was called upon by both the US and British Air Force to create war-sustainable pilot watches. Hamilton’s watches were created with a design and functionality that fit the needs of pilots. Today, Hamilton is still one of the industry leaders for pilot and field watches.
Moreover, some of the most obvious pilot-inspired watches in modern-times come from Breitling. Since Leon Breitling’s grandson, Willy, pushed Breitling into the aviation space in the 1940s, it has been known as one of the industry’s leading innovators in aviation-purposed timepieces. Breitling revolutionized the pilot watch, as its watches had timing and conversion rulers that allowed pilots to calculate in flight speed, distance and fuel. Willy Breitling further changed the game when he filed a patent for the first chronograph design with two pushers, splitting the start-stop function from the reset function. This function is still used in most chronographs today. However, Willy’s passion to create the ultimate chronograph didn’t stop there, as he then was the first to develop a slide-rule bezel — creating a chronograph for mathematics. The twisting bezel made complicated arithmetic easy, from calculating distances with precision to calculating long-distance phone call charges. But at this point in time, this twisting bezel Willy made wasn’t for pilots, it wasn’t meant for a single industry, he just wanted to create the ultimate chronograph. Willy’s initial iterations of these design elements include the Premier: Breitling’s highest quality chronograph line, the Duograph: Breitling’s line that utilized the split-second complication, and the Chronomat: the chronograph with the slide-rule bezel calibrated for scientists and engineers. However, as the post-WWII commercial aviation industry boomed, pressure from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) forced Willy to create a specialized version of the Chronomat to aid aviation. Willy recruited mathematician Marcel Robert to help him convert the Chronomat into a watch that assisted pilots. After years of research and testing, in 1952, Breitling introduced the Navitimer. The Breitling Navitimer, which will turn 70 in 2022, is a chronograph with an integrated flight computer. The Navitimer was a combination of Willy Breitling’s Duograph and Chronomat — featuring both a split-second complication and a slide-rule bezel. The first edition sold was the Reference 806, which featured the AOPA emblem on its dial. The reference 806 was powered by a manual chronograph movement Venus 178 which had a column wheel mechanism. Today, Navitimers are still worn by pilots all around the world.
In addition to the likes of Hamilton and Breitling, another one of the more eminent producers of pilot watches is IWC. IWC began manufacturing pilot watches in the 1930s. In 1936, the Special Pilot’s Watch was developed by IWC and featured rugged glass, a rotating bezel, and anti-magnetic escapement. Shortly after this model was made, IWC then manufactured the Big Pilot’s watch and the Pilot Mark XI for the Royal Air Force. The Big Pilot’s watch was released in 1940, and was sized at a massive case size of 55 mm. The watch came on an extra long strap with double loop and buckle meant to be worn over a flight suit. The design and sizing of the Big Pilot made this model especially important because it allowed pilots to quickly tell the time and also easily wear over their bulky suits. Today, IWC’s Spitfire and Top Gun collections model their original Pilot-inspired design elements seen 80+ years ago. And (of course), the Big Pilot and Mark collections are still in production today.
One of the most prolific pilot watches in society today is many times mistaken for a diver’s watch. The Rolex GMT Master was designed in collaboration with Pan American Airways. The model was launched in 1954, and was designed to assist pilots and navigators on long-haul flights. The GMT Master features a 24-hour display and a 12-hour hand that allows the watch to be set to Greenwich Mean Time or any other time zone, while the bezel is used to correct the offset of a second time zone. The model features an iconic two-tone bezel to represent day and night hours for pilots to easily track the time differences. The two-tone bezel has been made up of various colors throughout its 60+ year existence: Red/Black (Coke), Red/Blue (Pepsi), Black/Blue (Batman), or Brown (Rootbeer). The initial versions of the bezel were made out of aluminum and today are made using ceramic. While there have been various changes to the housing of the GMT Master, its overall design and aesthetic has stayed true to its 1954 original. Today the GMT Master II is one of the industry’s most recognizable watches.
List

"Rules"

Now that Pilot Watch 101 is over, let’s get into the list and the rules for the list. We are going to be breaking this list up into four different price ranges: $250-$1,000, $1,000-$5,000, $5,000-$10,000, $10,000 & Up. Additionally, each watch must have a pilot-watch inspired design, pilot watch history,  or travel/time complication (GMT, Chronograph, World Time). Also, please note that this list is fluid and will continuously stay up to date. Alright, let’s get into it.
Price Range

"$250-$500"

Orient Flight

"RA-AC0H01L10A & RA-AC0H02N10A"

The first two watches come from Orient and are a couple of the best pilot watches at their price point. Both come in with a wearable case size of 42 mm, and feature the Orient Caliber F6722 Automatic movement within. One noticeable flaw with these two watches from Orient is their mineral crystals, which are a less-durable alternative to sapphire crystals.
Citizen Nighthawk

"CA4370-52E"

Coming in with a water resistance of 200 meters, a stainless steel bracelet, and reliable Eco-Drive movement, the Citizen Nighthawk fun, everyday watch at an extremely affordable price. Whether you are starting your collection or looking for a budget everyday watch to add on to your collection, you can’t go wrong with the Nighthawk.
Seagull

"1963 Hand Wind Chrono"

The Seagull 1963 is an official remake of the 1963 Chinese Airforce Chronograph, a very unique and classic piece that is coveted by collectors nearly as much as the original. The updated version features a polished stainless steel case with a mineral crystal exhibition case back showcasing Seagull’s No. ST19 mechanical handwinding chronograph movement. The movement itself is nicely decorated with 21-jewels, runs at 21,600 VPH, and has a power reserve of 45 hours (without the chronograph running).  The goldish-brown dial features gold tone indices, midnight blue hour, minute and subdial hands, and a vibrant red seconds hand. At the top half of the dial you are greeted with a red star matching the shade of the seconds hand and outlined in gold. Underneath the star, 21 Zuan is precisely labeled indicating that the movement contains 21 Jewels. At the 9 o'clock indice, there is a seconds sub-dial and at the 3 there is a 30-minute counter for the chronograph. Both sub dials are styled with midnight blue hands that mirror the look of the hour and minute hands.
In essence, this piece is arguably the best chronograph at its price point. From its beautifully decorated movement, to the detailing on the dial, at a price of $389, collectors can not go wrong with the Seagull 1963.
Marathon

"General Purpose Mechanical with Tritium (GPM) - 34mm"

The Marathon General Purpose Mechanical measures in at a diameter of 34 mm and a thickness of 11 mm. It uses Tritium gas tubes to illuminate the hands, hour markings, and indexes. The movement, hidden from view, is the Seiko Caliber NH35. The movement is decorated with 24 jewels, runs at 21,600 bph and has a power reserve of 41 hours. It is a ubiquitous, but promising movement that engines many watches in the industry. With its sharp military style, reliable case construction, and accurate movement it is a great piece at the price and may be one of the more unique choices on the list.
Laco

"Pilot Watch Basic Augsburg & Altenburg"

The next couple of watches on our list come from Laco. Laco is a German brand with a rich history dating back nearly 100 years to 1925. They first obtained their reputation of exceptional timepieces by being one of the original providers of B-Uhr watches during the mid 20th century. Since they have continued to create exceptional timepieces in the classic Flieger designs, however, they have opened up their lineup of watches to include more contemporary styles, all being produced in Germany.
The Augsburg and Altenburg are some of the many classic pilot watches Laco manufacturers. The Augsburg and Altenburg feature C3 Superluminova filled hands and indexes, the Laco logo just under the 12 and Made in Germany broken up between the 6 o’clock index. Within the Augsburg and Altenberg, is the Laco 21 Automatic Caliber movement. A movement that is based off the Miyota 821 A movement. These are credible pilot watches from a credible brand. They are well-designed and well-constructed, and within has a reliable, established, and accurate movement. In essence, these are great pieces at a great price.