We all know and love dive watches. They shaped the aesthetics of modern watchmaking, pushed the boundaries of mechanical engineering, and carved out a spot in the hearts of enthusiasts. They were – at first – purpose-built tools for a specific vocation. Today, modern technology has surpassed that of mechanical dive watches, but it hasn’t replaced them. Similarly, pilot’s watches were once purpose-built tools for aviation. Although the technology is now obsolete, the heritage of these watches lives on. The same brands that made tools for early 20th century pilots continue to make watches sharing design language with their predecessors. Today we’ll look at some classic pilot’s watches and discuss what they represent in today’s enthusiast climate.
When I think ‘pilot’s watch’, I think Breitling Navitimer. It was an instant hit upon its release in 1954. Co-developed with Breitling, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) made the Navitimer their official timepiece. It was worn and loved by pilots worldwide. It’s distinctly a tool watch: the most important features being a chronograph and a slide rule bezel. With these two features, pilots could calculate fuel consumption, airspeed, rate of descent, or any other time-dependent measurement. Breitling did an incredible job making this watch a necessity. If you were a pilot in the 1950’s, it was irresponsible not to have a Navitimer.
The Navitimer is a classic. As a nearly 70-year-old watch, it’s gone through its fair share of iterations. They come in 35mm-47mm, gold, steel, white, green, blue, mother of pearl – you name it – there’s a Navitimer for you. Because this watch was developed for hyper-accurate, complex calculations, the dial and bezel contain a lot of into. Personally, I don’t think I could pull it off, but the Navitimer is doing just fine without me. Still, I appreciate the significance of this watch – it was once the definitive tool for pilots. Today, it’s a beautiful piece of history made by an iconic brand. If you like this look, you can’t go wrong with any of the Navitimer references.
IWC (Big) Pilot’s Watch
IWC aptly named their pilot’s watch. . . the Pilot’s Watch. They offer a bigger version of the watch named. . . the Big Pilot’s Watch. This simplicity continues onto the dial with hyper-legible Arabic numerals, stick indices, and a triangle flanked by two dots at 12 o’clock (traditional for a pilot’s watch). Some references come with day, date, and/or chronograph complications, all of which are thoughtfully laid out in 90 degree increments. Everything is in its place; the entire dial is balanced. The Big Pilot’s Watch features an oversized crown: a nod to pilots of the early 20th century. Before heated cockpits, pilots had to wear thick gloves to withstand the elements. An oversized crown makes adjusting the time easy, even with a pair of gloves on.
I love IWC’s Pilot’s Watches. Like the Navitimer, you can find one in just about any dial color, size, or complication you can think of. You could dress it up with a leather strap, you could dress it down on a steel bracelet, the possibilities are endless. This is a truly versatile watch without making any sacrifices. On top of its great looks, the Pilot’s Watch offers incredible build quality and a gorgeous in-house movement. IWC doesn’t mess around when it comes to quality – this is a watch that will last generations with the proper maintenance.
The Rolex Air-King (ref. 116900) is unlike any other Rolex. Actually, it has the same exact case and movement as the Milgauss, but bear with me here. In 1958, Rolex decided they needed a pilot’s watch in their lineup. They released the original Air-King – essentially a rebranded Explorer. In typical Rolex fashion, they found a big name (Charles Douglas Barnard) to champion the watch, bringing notoriety to the new model. The Air-King was still overshadowed by the larger Submariner and Explorer lines, but the brand kept the pilot’s watch in their lineup.
In 2016, Rolex unveiled the reference 116900, the current iteration of the Air-King family. Its unique dial contains the Explorer-esque 3, 6, and 9, as well as arabic numerals at every other 5-minute increment. At 12 o’clock, the Air-King has an upside down triangle: an interesting twist on the traditional pilot’s watch index. It features green ‘Rolex’ text, a green second hand, and a yellow Rolex crown logo. The Air-King is the only current Rolex with multiple colors (green and yellow) on the dial. Despite its borrowed elements from the Explorer and Milgauss, the Air-King is distinct in Rolex’s current lineup. It’s unmistakably a pilot’s watch, but I don’t think of it alongside watches like the Breitling Navitimer or IWC Pilot. The Air-King is truly its own beast, and it’s a handsome one at that.
Like the other watches on this list, the Air-King can be dressed up or down depending on its strap. If you’re looking for a rubber strap tailor-fit to the Air-King, look no further. Everest offers a curved-end rubber strap specifically for the reference 116900.
Pilot’s watches, like dive watches, have a deep history in horology. To a watch enthusiast, their design language is instantly recognizable: the 12 o’clock triangle, oversized crown, and slide rule bezel, to name a few. While there’s a ton of variation across different brands, pilot’s watches share one characteristic: versatility. You could wear an IWC Pilot to a wedding, a baseball game, or just around the house. Depending on the strap, a pilot’s watch can do just about anything; it’s an underappreciated genre in the modern enthusiast climate. These watches have rich history, great looks, and a wide variety of offerings.