Key Characteristics Of Pilot Watches

Key Characteristics Of Pilot Watches

As it has become customary, I became passionate about a type of watch when researching an article on the topic. Last week’s article on the most important World War II pilot watches prompted me to take a closer look at this genre of timekeeping devices. Like dive watches that were created to match the unique requirements of professional divers, and chronographs those of high-level car races and athletic competitions, pilot watches had to match pilots’ needs. These watches had a particular type of design aesthetic—at least at the beginning—which then evolved in what could be described as sub-genres of pilot watches. In this article, we’ll take a look at common characteristics of pilot watches that have been preserved into contemporary and modern interoperation of this type of watch. 

Everest Journal Key Characteristics of Pilot WatchesSource:

Pilot Watches Have Legible Dials 

In my article regarding World War II pilot watches, I mentioned that they had legible dials. Although they generally had small cases, these watches came with large hands and Arabic numerals all around the dial, and generally a small seconds register at the 6 o’clock. This was made so to make it easier to see the hour and minute hands and markers. Today, the most iconic pilot watches still display this simple yet effective dial layout. Originally, pilot watches were worn by pilots inside the cockpits to aid in navigation, calculating flight time, distance to a target, and fuel consumption, amongst other things. Being able to easily tell the time in a shaky and confusing environment was paramount. 

Everest Journal Key Characteristics of Pilot Watches

Nowadays, pilot watches—whether they are from historical German manufacturers in the likes of Stowa or Laco or Swiss ones such as Longines, IWC, or Breitling—preserve their essential functions and superlative legibility. While they can be equipped with any type of hand design, they generally come with Alpha hands (that look like elongated sword hands) or sign-post hands as seen on the Breitling Navitimer. Still speaking in general terms, pilot watches have high contrast, monochromatic dials and a full stack of Arabic numerals to aid with legibility. I would say that pilot watches are amongst the most functional and easy to read watches out there. 

Everest Journal Key Characteristics of Pilot WatchesSource:

Pilot Watches Have Few Complications, if Any 

Another characteristic most pilot watches have in common is the fact that they don’t come with many complications, if any. Besides the Breitling Navitimer that comes equipped with a full-fledged chronograph movement, pilot watches typically only display the time and sometimes the date. Historically, pilots needed an accurate watch that was easy to read and pilots weren’t most likely concerned about knowing the date. To be more accurate, World War II pilot watches did not have a date complication as it is something that was only added on wristwatches by Rolex in the 1950s. (LINK.) Similarly to a Rolex Explorer 1, pilot watches were primarily tools that needed to accurately tell the time. 

Everest Journal Key Characteristics of Pilot WatchesSource:

Pilot Watches Are Superiorly Built Against Magnetism 

Thinking back of World War II again, and trying to imagine the experience of pilots in their cockpits, one can imagine the tremendous amount of magnetic fields their watches were exposed to. We know that they were sinked by way of radio pings which, I imagine, conflicted with their inner workings. I would imagine, furthermore, that magnetism is an even bigger problem in modern times given that planes are basically flying IT rooms. As a watch enthusiast, you probably know that the best way to protect a watch against magnetic fields is to encircle the movement with a soft iron cage. This is why modern pilot watches still come with this type of technology or paramagnetic hairsprings. 

Everest Journal Key Characteristics of Pilot WatchesSource:

Final Thoughts 

In this bit-size article on pilot watches and what defines them, we took a look at three core elements that set this genre of watches apart from any other one: a simple and legible dial layout, few or no complications, and superior protection against magnetism. There is of course more that goes into making classic and well-made pilot watches, but I would say the above constitutes the core of what defines them. These characteristics were as relevant in the 1940s as they are today, and I would argue that collectors and enthusiasts who are into pilot watches gravitate toward them for these very reasons. 

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