Looking at the role of the pilot’s watch today
Are pilot’s watches still used as pilot’s watches today? Well, the short answer is: no. Truth be told, almost all modern pilots watches are made for civilians. However, according to Jonathan Welsh, a private pilot who worked as a reporter, editor and columnist for the Wall Street Journal for 21 years, a pilot’s watch is still a necessary piece of equipment when flying, but not for the reasons you think.
As anyone with even a passing interest in pilot’s watches may already know, the first men’s wristwatch made in 1904 was a pilot’s watch called the Cartier Santos, made by the Parisian jeweller for Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont. That makes the pilot’s watch 120 years old this year. And after Charles Lindbergh got his hands on it, well, things were never the same.
During the interbellum, Lindbergh created the Longines Hour Angle Watch, the design of which was based on the patent for a watch registered in conjunction with Longines by Captain Philip Van Horn Weems: a simple and decisive invention whereby the timepiece can be synchronized to the nearest second with a radio time signal using the outer bezel of the central dial. This single device catapulted the pilot’s watch into the proper tool for aviators that we know today.
The genre literally exploded after that, with the pilot’s watch being propelled by the war machine that was called the Second World War. This was led by the German watch industry, which during World War II produced the German Beobachtungsuhren (B-Uhr for short) or “observation watch” infamously worn by the German Luftwaffe, or German Air Force.
At least five watchmakers produced B-Uhr watches: Laco, Wempe, Stowa, A. Lange & Söhne, and IWC Schaffhausen. Despite this dark history, the design of the B-Uhr watch is regarded as the most functional of all time and is the template of the typical aviator’s watch today. Just look at the modern interpretations by Laco, Stowa, and Hamilton if you need any more evidence of this, especially the most famous interpretation of the B-Uhr watch today: the IWC Big Pilot’s watch.
But the time when aviation legends Charles Lindbergh and Wiley Post were crossing oceans has come and gone. GPS and other forms of digital avionics have made flying safer and easier, and have taken the chore of calculating flight time, distance travelled, fuel consumption, etc., away from the pilot and his timepiece. And while it’s true that there was a time when pilots required rugged and precise watches to fly their aircraft safely and efficiently, the situation changed dramatically when electronic navigation systems became standard equipment in most if not all aircraft sometime during the mid-1980s.
What fuels the pilot’s watch market today is a nostalgic fascination between horology and aeronautics and their former interdependence. In turn, the watch industry feeds on this fascination and outwardly encourages the celebration of the era when mechanical watches were cutting edge tools deployed in the world’s most important struggles towards “freedom and independence.” I mean, who wouldn’t want to celebrate that? This is why the best pilot’s watches today either mimic or are re-issues of watches used in many of the world’s major conflicts, or that explore the specific style of a plane or aeronautics company.
Look no further than British watchmaker, Bremont, which excels at adopting symbols, color combinations, and/or materials used in aviation. Or Bell & Ross, the stock in trade of which is adopting the designs of cockpit instruments for their watches. And aside from an actual Aviator’s circular slide rule in the Navitimer, Breitling has become an expert of the direct recreation of aviation branding on a watch. But it would be foolish to mistake modern pilot’s watches for anything other than what they really are: incredibly robust pieces of high-precision mechanical jewelry.
Why don’t we let engineer and pilot, “Dave”, who regularly posts about aviation on aviation.stackexchange.com do the talking. “When you are in the cockpit a watch can be useful (provided you can read it). If your heading indicator fails you can use a watch and your turn coordinator to time your turns, which can save your life in the clouds. I generally start my chronograph (an Omega Speedmaster) when I take off (in my Piper Warrior), this gives me not only en route time but markers of the half hour blocks when I need to switch my tanks. For what its worth, there is a clock in the plane as well as a timer so I don't need a watch but I enjoy wearing one. When I fly dead reckoning I carry an all-mechanical Heuer Stopwatch to time my legs. Again these things are in the plane but I find the hand held stopwatch easier to use. Some fancy aviation watches provide flight computers on the bezels like Breitlings but there is no way you are reading that in the air unless its really smooth up there.”
So there you have it. At best, a good pilot’s watch can be a reliable back up if (and that’s a big if) the technology in modern aircraft fails. Otherwise, modern pilots still wear pilot’s watches because: A) they really are made for pilots and hark back to a time when they actually needed them, B) they are a reliable back up in case their modern avionics fail, and C) because they look good. So yes, still relevant but not for the reasons you think.