Just like the venerable dive watch, the pilot watch has origins of purpose rather than style. And just like diving timepieces, pilot 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?
Louis Cartier, in 1904, designed and created the first pilot watch, the Cartier Santos, for his aviator friend, Alberto Santos-Dumont, as a way to keep time without removing his hands from the controls. As aviation grew through World War II, so did the characteristics of the watches that pilots wore.
So, what makes a pilot watch a pilot watch? First off, unlike dive watches, there’s no universal standard for a pilot watch in terms of a measurable capability to withstand altitude, pressure, or g-forces, but there are universally accepted features a pilot watch should have. A good pilot watch should have excellent legibility with a dark face and high contrast numerals (classically white or cream). Arabic numerals 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 be least a 40mm diameter or larger, often upwards of 46mm. This adds to the easy legibility. The crown should also be big and easy, which was originally included so that pilots could easily grip the crown while wearing gloves.
Types of Pilot Watches
Flieger Watch: Created for the German military in World War II, the Flieger watch takes its name from the German word for “flyer.” These watches were designed with legibility and functionality in mind, and feature oversized cases with large matte-black dials and distinctive hands in two distinct dial layouts. The “A” layout has a traditional watch face with a triangle at 12 o’clock. The “B” layout also triangle at 12, with the addition of two timekeeping tracks on the dial: an outer track with Arabic numerals every five minutes that tracks minutes and lines up with the end of the minute hand, and an inner track with Arabic numerals for every hour. The design of these watches influenced the development of other pilot watches in the years to follow. Even today, the Flieger watch is highly respected among pilots and watch enthusiasts for its timeless design, durability, and functionality.
Pilot Chronograph: Also called a flight chronograph, this design was popularized by French WWII pilot watches. As to be expected, features designed to help a pilot calculate crucial diagnostics, navigate, and track time are key to the style (today, pilots can turn to their control panel for the information they used to have to deduct using their watch, but that doesn’t mean the functions have gone away in the style). Like all chronograph watches, a pilot chronograph has a stopwatch feature. What sets it apart is that the stopwatch can easily be controlled with one push to start, stop, and pause instead of three pushes.
The Best Pilot Watches
From the truly affordable to the truly premium, each one of these pilot watches 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.
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, though it’s admittedly more distracting of a design than the original easy to read pilot watches.
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.
The T16 is a pilot watch that looks just like a vintage aircraft gauge, and the 44m 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.
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. 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 iconic Big Crown pilot watches date back to the 1930s. The Pro Pilot Chrono might seem like a traditional pilot chronograph 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, gray 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.
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 the 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 slim wrists, 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
The UK’s Bremont brand is all about aviation and 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.