What Is a Pilot Watch?
In short, a pilot watch is a type of watch specially designed to assist pilots while flying. Just like dive watches were born from necessity, so were these. Regular pocket watches were simply not practical for pilots as they had to remove their hands from the controls in order to read the time. This is why the pilot watch was born in the early 1900's, and was in fact the first wristwatch ever to be made.
But as well as conveniently fitting around the wrist, the pilot watch was famous for a number of other characteristics to aid pilots in the air.
Characteristics and Features of a Pilot Watch
As you can imagine, the cockpit can be a pretty dim environment, especially while flying in poor conditions or at night. For this reason, a pilot watch would feature an luminous glow-in-the-dark dial, which allowed pilots to easily read the watch, even in complete darkness.
A Large Dial and Crown
As well as being able to glow in the dark, pilot watches were also designed with large, dark dials and contrasting numbers, so pilots could quickly and easily tell the time, whatever the conditions.
Another large characteristic of a pilot watch is the crown - an important part of the watch, used to control many of a watch’s features. The crown had to be of large size due to pilots always wearing thick gloves, meaning they could use the crown without having to remove them. This, however, isn’t the case nowadays as cockpits are generally heated, so the need for gloves is eliminated. For this reason, many modern pilot watches don’t feature the large crown.
A GMT Function
Most pilot watches also featured a GMT complication. GMT stands for Greenwich Mean Time and is the worldwide standard against which all other time zones are calculated.
Time is one of the biggest indicators of where you are in the sky, and with a watch being a pilot’s only concept of time, a GMT function is essential when calculating exactly where they are on earth.
Learn more about GMT and how it works here.
A Rotating Bezel
Typically a pilot would need to reset their whole watch each time they cross a new time zone in the air, but a rotating bezel enables a much more efficient method by simply turning the bezel to compensate for the difference in time.
A Chronograph Function
More recently, pilot watches feature a chronograph function, which is a mechanism used to measure elapsed time, compute speed based on travel time and/or measure distance based on speed. Pilots would use this feature to gauge plane functions, calculate airspeed, and even compensate for wind direction.
Pilot Watch History
In the late 19th century, pilots wore a pocket watch to tell the time. However Brazilian aviator, Alberto Santos-Dumont, noticed this wasn’t a reliable way to keep track of time as it meant pilots had to keep removing their hands from the controls to remove the watch from their pocket. This issue with watch technology is why the pilot watch was born.
On the request of his friend Alberto Santos-Dumont, in 1904 Louis Cartier created the first pilot watch - the ‘Cartier Santos’ - a small gold watch with a square face and exposed screws. Many people regard the Santos as not only the first pilot’s watch, but also the first wrist watch.
Over time, however, a pilot's watch has evolved to meet different demands. Brands like Breitling added functions such as a chronograph and rotating bezel to meet the demands of increased flight complexities. As previously mentioned, cockpits used to be freezing, but as they are now heated, the need for warm thick gloves and a larger strap are gone.
Pilot Watches Today
Named after the first aircraft built by Boeing, this is a unique hand-made timepiece that reflects Boeing’s extensive experience in advanced material research. Manufactured from Custom 465 Stainless Steel, this double vacuum-melted, age-hardenable alloy was developed for the aerospace industry for superior strength, hardness and corrosion resistance.
This Black Bay model from Tudor is a truly handsome and substantial automatic watch, boasting superb accuracy thanks to its precision Calibre MT5652 mechanism, high legibility with its high-contrast dial featuring luminescent indexes on a jet black backing, and enhanced functionality with its date readout at 3 o'clock and bidirectional rotating bezel with 24-hour markers, allowing you to keep track of a secondary timezone.
The Tudor Black Bay is a highly functional timepiece that's perfect for both casual and professional use.
The Best Pilot Watch Straps
Pilot watches straps should not only be high quality and durable, but they must also be comfortable. Here are three of our best pilot watch straps:
The best pilot straps are:
- Di-Modell IKARUS
- Di-Modell VENEZUELA
- Morellato BRAMANTE
Available in three warm colours, the Ikraus collection from Di-Modell is a sturdy and stylish pilot's watch strap, outfitted with four stainless steel studs at the outer edges that punctuate the strap's curved design.
With its iconic riveted design, the Ikarus pilot's strap offers up a variety of textures and finishes, resulting in a fascinatingly tactile, complex band. The soft calf leather is treated with a varnish-like finish, while the under-layer consists of a special soft rubber.
The Di-Modell Venezuela range is a high-quality pilot-style calfskin watch strap, with a refined alligator-embossed texture and novel rounded tip.
Adorned with numerous novel design elements, the Venezuela has a substantial look and feel, easily matched by its durable, comfortable fit. Equipped with a special dual-tang buckle and decorated with four prominent rivets, this is a strap that has an almost industrial style to it.
Written by Kate, for Watch Obsession.