Just like the venerable dive watch, the pilot watch has origins of purpose rather than style. And just like diving timepieces, pilot’s watches have evolved over the decades to become an iconic horological style that has stood the test of time. You don’t have to fly an aircraft to wear one, either. Modern pilot watches run the gamut of styles, some adhering to tradition, while others take on more contemporary interpretations. One thing is for sure, though. Pilot watches are here to stay.
What Is a Pilot Watch?
So, what makes a pilot watch a pilot watch? First off, unlike dive watches, there exists no universal standard for a pilot’s watch in terms of a measurable capability to withstand altitude, pressure, or g-forces, but there are universally accepted features a pilot’s watch should have. A good pilot’s watch should really have excellent legibility with high contrast numerals (white or cream). Arabic numbers on the face instead of simple markers are customary so as not to impede legibility for the wearer while flying. Excellent lume is also vital for low light and nighttime visibility. A darker dial and lighter hands and numerals are ideal for contrast, and the crystal should be made of mineral crystal or sapphire glass and also have anti-reflective properties for glare reduction. A good pilot’s watch should also have at least a 40mm diameter or larger, upwards of 46mm. This adds to the easy legibility. The crown should also be big and easy to grip with gloves.
The Best Pilot Watches
We’ve selected a wide swath of pilot’s watches across a range of prices, from the truly affordable to the truly premium. Each one of these selections ticks most of the pilot watch boxes and manages to deliver an excellent style quotient. Whether you choose to actually fly with them is totally up to you.
Orient Sports Automatic Pilot
The mere fact that you can get an automatic pilot watch from a reputable Japanese company for under $200 is hard to believe. But the Orient Sports Automatic Pilot is the real deal. Not only does it have excellent contrast with the white hands and numerals against a bright blue dial, but it also comes with a stainless steel bracelet that really dresses it up. The mineral crystal provides excellent scratch and impact resistance, and it even offers 100 meters of water resistance.
Torgoen T16 Gunmetal Sapphire
The T16 is a pilot watch that looks just like a vintage aircraft gauge, and the 44m gunmetal case is the perfect match for the vintage-lumed hands. The big numerals jump off the dial but are balanced nicely by the three subdials. A Swiss Ronda quartz movement provides excellent timekeeping, and the Italian leather strap is both meaty to the eye and comfortable on the wrist. Details like the crown guard and the case-matching strap hardware are a huge plus. And the reasonable price makes this an excellent pilot watch for your first purchase. You might just have to get yourself a leather flight jacket to match this beauty.
AVI-8 Avon Automatic Black Arrows
If you want a pilot watch that breaks from tradition, the Avon Automatic Black Arrows easily qualifies since it looks like it was created for a 22nd-century fighter pilot, despite the fact that it’s inspired by the WWII Hawker Hunter’s Rolls-Royce Avon turbine jet engine. The machining of the inner and outer bezel, as well as the grippy crown, mimics the Hunter’s engine. The red detailing against the gunmetal finishing of the watch contrast beautifully, and the open heart view of the automatic movement is meant to distract you from more important duties.
Laco Altenburg 42
Sometimes it’s the most traditional style of the German Flieger Type A watch that’s the most versatile. Laco just happens to make one in the perfect 42mm size with a black PVD coating on the case to make things a bit more interesting. The crisp Arabic numerals with C3 Super LumiNova against the black dial make time-telling nearly instantaneous. While the Miyota 821A automatic movement provides reliable timekeeping. For under $500, it’s hard to believe you get sapphire glass on the front and on the display back, as well as a double-riveted leather strap and PVD coating on the caseback. It’s also thin enough to fit under a shirt cuff, not something you can do with just any pilot watch.
CWC RAF Pilot Chronograph
Cabot Watch Company sits low on the horological radar, but that’s why we love the brand’s offerings so much. Only the watch cognoscenti will know what’s on your wrist. The RAF Pilot Chrono is derived straight from the Royal Air Force watch from the ’90s. The dial is actually quite elegant with the thin minute chapter ring, small but highly legible numerals, sword hands, and crisp subdials. Underneath is a Swiss Ronda quartz movement, and it’s topped off by tough sapphire glass. The unique fixed bars keep the grey Nato strap secure. Even non-watch folks will think you’re a pilot when this is on your wrist.
Archimede Pilot 42 Bronze
A vintage-style pilot’s watch with the aging of bronze patina will make you look like an old soul with some seriously good taste. Plus, the Archimede Pilot 42 Bronze is German-made, so you know there’s quality here. Our favorite aspect might just be the blued second hand that adds colorful character to the timepiece. The movement is the venerable automatic Swiss ETA 2824-2, which is reliable and easily serviceable for years of use. You can also choose between a solid caseback or transparent sapphire. Finally, the conical crown is made of bronze, and the rivets and buckle on the leather strap also match the bronze coloring of the case.
Farer Lander Midnight
Farer’s modern approach to the pilot watch is fresh, and the level of detail paid is impressive. The Lander GMT gets a new deep blue hue, curved bronze hands, and a fluted crown with a bronze Farer logo inset. The touches make the watch truly special, and the end result is that it becomes as much about style as it does pilot functionality. Still, the big lumed Arabic numerals make the watch super-legible, and the domed sapphire glass, 39.5mm diameter, and GMT hand provide true long-travel practicality.
Longines Avigation BigEye
This one is the stunner in the set, and the Avigation BigEye draws directly from a vintage Longines museum watch and from military inspiration that Longines has nailed in previous models like the Legend Diver. The Avigation BigEye measures 41mm across, and the asymmetrical black subdial layout manages to prevent the face from looking too crowded, given the level of details presented. The watch is powered by a Swiss ETA-based chronograph movement with an impressive 54 hours of power reserve. It comes on a vintage brown leather strap that completes the look of this new classic.
Oris Big Crown Pro Pilot Chronograph
Oris’s Big Crown pilot watches date back to the 1930s, and they’re icons in the brand’s lineup. The Pro Pilot Chrono might seem like a traditional pilot chrono upon first glance. But the details point to a unique take. There’s the large and grippy crown, of course, as well as the coin edge bezel, grey sunray dial, and the short pushers. Timekeeping is managed by the Oris 774, Sellita SW 500-based Swiss automatic movement with 48 hours of power reserve. A large 44mm case diameter equates to excellent legibility and a strong wrist presence. It’s one of our favorites.
Sinn 717 SZ-01 Chronograph
Germany’s Sinn brand is a tool and instrument watch company of the best kind, and its cult following is completely justified with materials and engineering that belie their price. One of its newest watches is a “cockpit wristwatch” that draws directly from German cockpit instruments from the ’70s. The big 45mm case isn’t for the slim of wrist, and the small seconds subdial and big numerals add drama to the face. It also boasts a rotating minute counter and orange hands to mark the chronograph hour and minutes. Like other Sinn instruments, the 717 gets Sinn’s Black PVD Hard Coating, super hard Tegiment case application, and the brilliant Ar-Dehumidifying tech that prevents the crystal from fogging up.
Bremont ALT1-C Griffon
You can’t have a pilot watch list without the UK’s Bremont brand that’s all about aviation, as well as motoring. The Griffon is a new take on the ALT1-C and is inspired by the WWII-era Mark XIX Supermarine Spitfire that was powered by the iconic Rolls-Royce Griffon engine. The big 43mm case is multifaceted with a knurled black PVD inner case and a brushed stainless steel outer case. The bicompax dial is a classic with baton hands, and the layout of the vintage-hued numerals and markers makes for great legibility, as well as a refined look. The Griffon is powered by a modified in-house Caliber BE-50AE automatic movement with a COSC chronometer rating. The custom rotor has some terrific Griffon engine part cutouts, all viewable through the transparent caseback.
IWC Big Pilot 43
IWC’s pilot watches are some of the most iconic in the horological world, but their large 46mm Big Pilots intimidate all but the most thick-wristed watch lovers. The brand recently unveiled a 43mm Big Pilot that’s more manageable but still offers great wrist presence. The case is plenty big, the onion crown is still prominent, and the classic pilot numerals and 12 o’clock triangular orientation marker keep things straight. There’s no date, no subdials, and nothing to detract from the sheer cleanness of it. The movement is an in-house, 60-hour power reserve Caliber 82100, whose spoked rotor is viewable through the sapphire caseback. This is how you take a tool watch and make it truly a luxury timepiece.