Watches for Pilots

There are a boatload of em, all with big dials and glitzy features. If accurate time keeping is important, buy cheap.

What does a watch do? It tells time, of course.

What does a pilots watch do? Well, it tells time, too. But traditionally, it also has a stopwatch function, often called a chronograph, a high falutin word that simply means interval timer. Since pilots are also navigators and navigation traditionally requires highly reliable timepieces, the would-be buyer may vaguely assume that a pilots watch slices the seconds with laser-like accuracy, a notion the ad agencies for Rolex, Brietling and others have done nothing to dispel. (Its not true, of course.)

Then there’s the look. There’s nothing quite like a shimmering gold-cased watch with a dial the size of a dinner plate and festooned with scales, buttons, bezels and multiple hands to convey the message: I am a pilot.

In fact, the single best reason to buy a pilots watch may be as a fashion statement; there are better-and far cheaper-ways to keep accurate time. Fine timepieces also represent an asset of sorts so if you really want to drop a couple of grand on a watch, its value might at least keep pace with inflation.

The question is: Do you want a good, practical cockpit watch or a fashion statement? If the latter, how much is that style worth to you?

Way Back
Surprisingly, pilot watches-or at least chronographs-go back nearly to the days of the Wright Brothers. In 1915, Gaston Breitling designed the first wrist-worn chronograph with an independent center seconds hand and a 30-minute totalizer, all operated by a pushbutton. Nineteen years later Willy Breitling introduced the second, a return-to-zero pushpiece.

After researching the history of the chronograph, were not sure if the market developed because of pilot demand or if the early manufacturers saw aviators as a target of opportunity for a new and evolutionary product.

Much evidence points to the latter. In any case, today there are more than 50 manufacturers hustling nearly 400 different models of wristwatches targeted at pilots. Many are mechanical watches made in Switzerland.

During the 17th century, Switzerlands Vallee de Joux attracted many watch craftsmen and today this area of 6000 inhabitants is home to about 40 watch component manufacturers who produce 95 percent of Switzerlands complications – instruments that do more than just tell time and that are considered the highest form of watchmaking. Vallee de Joux spawned countless innovations, such as Fortis automatic wristwatch in 1926, Rolexs self-winding rotor mechanism in 1931 and Breitlings logarithmic-scale slide rule in 1942. These gave pilots useful products and marketeers more pizzaz to push.

A pilots watch soon became as much a status symbol unrelated to aeronautical accomplishments as it was a useful tool. NASA picked the Omega Speedmaster, for example, for its astronauts and the watch made it to the moon on July 21, 1969, at 02:56 GMT. (At the time that model sold for about $900 1970-dollars; today it retails for $2295.)

But the mainly Swiss spring-driven analog wristwatch fell on hard times during the 1970s when millions of quartz digital watches flooded the market. Eventually, in a marketing revival, such companies as Techniques DAvant-Garde (TAG), Heuer, and Breitling created a chronograph craze in the mid-1980s, in part due to stylish Italians who became as passionate about watches as they are reported to be about cars and women. Building on that success, the industry is continually developing new chronographs and ad agencies are hawking them with such phrases as the watch you wear says a lot about you, or unique and robust in its functionality and design…

Yeah, but theyre still just watches.

Features Abound
Setting aside emotions, what are the actual requirements for an aviation timekeeper? Heres a checklist of features found on many chronographs. No single model has them all.

Display: Analog, digital or combination
Color: white-on-black, black-on-white or combinations
Movement: mechanical or electronic quartz
Case: plastic, steel, titanium, gold.
Bracelet: plastic, leather, steel, gold
Precision: A mechanical varies up to one minute a week, while a quartz might vary by one second a week
Stopwatch limits: from 15 minutes to 48 hours, depending on model
Date, day-of-week, month displayed
Count-down-to-zero timer
Second (or more) time zone
Selectable 12/24-hour display
Hourly beep
E6B-type circular slide rule
Water-resistant or waterproof
Luminous or illuminated
Sunrise/sunset data
Altimeter (See the sidebar)
Appearance: dressy or functional

Sorting Them Out
With so many watches to choose from, we cant possibly comment on even a sizeable fraction of the total. But here are some observations on what we consider the high notes.

Some buyers will be driven by price alone and for them, there’s good news. The Casio G-Shock, DW5600E-1V, has most of the above features and sells for just $69.95. (Were quoting manufacturers list prices here, but many models are substantially discounted.)

This watch has large 4.5 mm digits, a second time zone (12/24-hour), stopwatch (up to 24 hours), count down alarm, hourly time signals, multi-alarms (daily, monthly or date) and the battery lasts for about seven years. Winner of no fashion awards, this is a plain-Jane watch, with its black plastic case cover (over steel) and matching wrist band. But like the appeal of the 1960s Volkswagen, its popular among many pilots for its sheer functionality and logical ease-of-use. Its also cheap.

The technocrats lust for functions can be satisfied with the Pulsar Aerotech PYL003 ($135). It has functions galore, including E6B bezel, but tiny 3 mm digits in some displays. The Seiko digital SAW097 ($75) has almost as many features and sports a metal case and bracelet. The Casio Telememo 50 World Time ABX-53CU-8AV ($99.95) is full-featured for the globe-trotter, with 23 time zones, plus it has a five-page telememo feature and a leather band.

Fashion statements don’t go unnoticed, so if your wallet can stand some thinning, Pulsars Chrono X/C PYQ002S ($250), with its gold-color case and leather band looks expensive but isn’t. It has dual stopwatch functions, an alarm and calendar.

If you must have accuracy, the quartz electronic movement can maintain 5 to 30 seconds a month, varying by make or model. Mechanical watches-even the expensive ones-cant come close to that level of precision.

The Casio DW 5600, the Pulsar analog Navichron PWF003S ($300, with slide rule bezel, 12-hour stopwatch, countdown timer, alarm, dual time zone, date and a handsome leather band), and the Seiko analog SDWC45 ($350, with six-hour timer, alarm and date) are examples of multi-function quartz movements.

Real Pilots Watches
Say pilots watch and many people envision the aforementioned steam-gauge timepiece costing a bundle. This part of the market is populated by Breitling ($850 to $25,450, with many in the $1000 to $3500 range), Chase-Durer ($159 to $1700), IWC ($2750 to $21,995), Omega ($1495 to $2795), Pulsar ($275 to $300), Rolex ($5100 to $20,450) and Seiko ($225 to $575), to mention a few. Some models from Seiko, Pulsar, Chase-Durer and Breitling have an E6B-type circular slide rule.

With only a few exceptions, the most expensive pilots watches are mechanical-spring driven. Many have more than 350 parts, some no larger than a human hair. The cases alone may have 80 parts. To own one is to know you have a masterpiece of human ingenuity and craftsmanship, as Breitling puts it. Rolex says its owners know that they share a common goal themselves-the appreciation of quality and perfection that is uncommon in todays world. For some, that alone is reason enough to own one. Or as one owner simply said, Oh, yes. There is prestige in wearing a Rolex.

In this class, we find these offerings: Breitling Chronomat Blackbird self-winding ($3675, steel case, with black dial, 12-hour timer, date and steel bracelet); the IWC Fliegerchronograph 3706 ($3995, automatic winding, 12-hour timer, soft iron inner case to shield the movement from magnetic fields, day and date, matte steel case and leather bracelet); the Omega Speedmaster 3510.50 automatic ($1495, black dial, 12-hour timer, steel case and bracelet).

Also on the list is the Fortis Cosmonauts GMT ($3295, automatic, with additional 24-hour hand, steel case and leather strap); the TAG Heuer S/el ($2500, automatic, with grey dial, 12-hour timer, date and two-tone case and bracelet) and the Rolex Daytona Cosmograph self-winding ($5100, white dial, 12-hour timer, steel case and bracelet).

These are all examples of very fine mechanical chronographs that are the highest expression of the mechanical watchmakers art. After you win the Lotto, you might also gain admission to a very select club. The owner of a Ferrari Maranello 500, at about $350,000, knows it doesnt get him from A to B much faster (legally) than a Honda Civic, but when he parks at point B, he knows he has arrived.

And so will many of those sitting on the curb, which is part of the reason for owning this class of pilots watch. The Breitling Old Navtimer in 18K gold and with calculator ($18,400), the IWC Doppelchronograph 3713 in 18K gold ($18,995) and the Rolex Daytona Cosmograph in 18K gold with gold bracelet ($20,450) are examples of the elegance, high price and status.

At these prices, these watches arent just timepieces nor are they mere jewelry. Some actually appreciate in value so they really are investments. Youll do better in an aggressive mutual fund but then you cant wear your stock certificates with your tux.

Are watches liquid? Yes, some collectors are willing to pay top dollar for them, in excellent condition. But this isn’t like pawning a Seiko. Youll have to search the horological journals to find the buyers and it will take time. Whether you keep that expensive watch in a vault or wear it daily, it should be insured. A typical home owners policy has a limit of $1000 for jewelry and furs. But with a specific schedule, showing appraised amount and bill of sale, many will cover a costly watch without additional cost.

On Guard
For a couple of years, Breitling has offered the EmergencY, which is a marriage between their Aerospace quartz analog ($1825, 24-hour timer, countdown timer, second time zone, alarm, day and date, titanium case) and a Dassault ELT transmitter. A single button on the watch selects, corrects and commands all functions. Battery life is three to four years. In an emergency, you unscrew the protective cap and pull out the antenna. It then broadcasts nonstop on 121.5 MHz for 48 hours. Its range is about 100 miles, assuming a rescue craft at 20,000 feet. For a fraction of the cost, of course, you could buy a portable ELT with far greater range.

As long as I don’t need it, said a Swiss pilot who owns one, it is just a good, reliable and nice watch. If I should [go down and] be injured, it just might be a little more than a gimmick and perhaps the best investment I made in my whole life.

One catch: Breitling is still trying to obtain permission from the U.S. government to sell the EmergencY. For now, theyre selling overseas. We saw one advertised in Tokyo for $4800.

Before you make up your mind, here are some things to watch (sorry). Some timers have a maximum of only 60 minutes, a few are even less. The hour and minutes hands on some are so large as to occasionally prevent accurate reading of the timers minute hand- a very serious shortcoming, in our view.

Many timers jump the minute (or hour) hand when the seconds hand passes 60 seconds. Others continuously move the hands, like the hour hand on a conventional watch or clock. The former is much easier to accurately read at a glance.

We saw one watch whose silver colored hands got visually lost when they were over the white sub-dials. It took more than a mere glance to read it. Also, the digits on some are so small theyre difficult to read in poor light or while bouncing around.

Some quartz models will only run 18 months before a battery change is necessary, but some warn you when the battery is low by jumping the seconds hand in two-second leaps. Some of the multi-function quartz models are intuitively simple to use. Others require that you keep the instruction manual on hand at all times. One owner admitted, I don’t use the functions often enough to remain knowledgeable about how to use them. Another griped that the slide rule is impractical in my opinion, because the ring is too difficult to turn and the numbers are too small to read while flying an airplane, although I can read them in my living room. Another owner reported that The E6B is usable. In a dull moment, I might figure how long it would take me to get to a certain point.

The cost of repairing a mechanical watch is not insignificant. Rolex says all overhauls are between $250 to $500, depending on the condition of the watch. A dealer we spoke with said he recommends servicing every three to five years. A Breitling dealer told us a typical overhaul for their Aviastar costs $400, plus tax. Thats 13 percent of the purchase price.

A Pilots Tool? Maybe
For the gadget freak, a multi-function watch is useful for non-aviation tasks. Its beep-beep might announce that its time to pick up the kids or we can use it to remind us to feed the parking meter.

But few pilots we interviewed claimed they use a wrist timer while flying. Some need it as a tank-timer, or to measure total flight time of a flight, but we couldnt find one who actually used it to time an instrument approach. As one airline pilot put it, When Im on the approach, my head doesnt move, just my eyes. I would never take a chance with vertigo by glancing down to my wrist. We have a timer on the instrument panel for that.

Several pilots who cross time zones said they literally wouldnt know what time it was without their Casio World Time. So we know pilots use them indirectly in their work, but few claim to use them in flight.

Which One?
The utility vehicle of pilots time pieces has got to be the Casio G-Shock series. It has many functions, its easy to read and costs less than a hundred bucks. But you might be scorned when you walk into Luigis for dinner while wearing it. For a dressier model that will keep accurate time, deliver on higher features and look like a million bucks without costing that much, we like this list:

The Seiko analog Flight Computer SEH010 ($525, rotary slide rule, six-hour timer, alarm, battery life indicator, black dial with gold color case and bracelet); the Citizen Navihawk ($375, time and calendar in 30 cities and 22 time zones, retractable hands for maximum visibility, help display of button functions, slide rule bezel, three alarms, 24-hour timer and countdown).

If we win the Daily Pick, we’ll put new radios into the airplane before we consider one of the big-bucks watches. But if someone wants to give us a Breitling Jupiter Pilot (quartz electronic analog display, 12-hour timer plus count-down, alarm, compass rose and circular slide rule ($1425), we wouldnt refuse it.

Worth a last mention is another watch we found intriguing. It was originally designed for the deaf or hard of hearing, but is now being pitched to pilots. (Didnt we say marketing prowess probably precedes pilots demands?) Its Global Assistive Devices VibraLITE, a wrist alarm that shakes you awake.

No lightweight in function, it has a 12/24-hour digital display, countdown timer (great for tank switching), stopwatch, second time zone, hourly alert and two alarms, plus blue electroluminescent lighting. The ultimate travel alarm, it sells for just $34.95, a real steal in this market.

There are so many watches out there that deciding on one is like picking tomatoes; any of them will do and the differences between them are slight. We urge you to hold the watch in your own hands, operate its buttons, check the dials for readability in moderate light and read the specs before deciding which fits your budget, your tastes and, yes, your wardrobe.

Also With This Article
Click here to view the Watch Checklist.
Click here to view “Time and Altitude: Casio’s Altimeter.”
Click here to view “GPS Time: As Good As It Gets.”
Click here to view the Watch Addresses & Contacts.

-by Ward Miller
Ward Miller is an instrument pilot and an officer in the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors.