The Seven Best Pilot’s Watches To Take Off With Now

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The Seven Best Pilot’s Watches To Take Off With Now

Words by Mr Alex Doak

18 September 2023

In many ways, a pilot’s watch is the original wristwatch. Watches were attached to bracelets as far back as the 17th century, but the modern watch as we know it only really took off, if you will, with the advent of the age of flight in the early 20th century. Almost certainly the first was Mr Louis Cartier’s answer to flyboy pioneer Mr Alberto Santos-Dumont and his plea for a timepiece for which he wouldn’t need to rummage in his pockets while wrestling the controls.

Concomitantly, the staple elements of a pilot’s wristwatch were established: high-contrast legibility and luminous markings, sturdy cases and a certain degree of magnetic resistance (a cockpit’s instrument array hides a battery of electric solenoids). Those traits form the basis of a modern-day tool watch, compounded in 1948 by IWC Schaffhausen’s RAF-issue Mark XI.

And today, they form the perfect weekend watch, matched better to casualwear than a lounge suit – or indeed G-suit. Scroll down for our own particular mavericks.

Remember that barometer hanging in your grandparents’ hallway? Well, this is that, but on wrist scale. A pilot’s guide to altitude, rather than weather, using the same squash or squeeze of an “aneroid” capsule as air pressure varies, moving a gauge. But if you thought rendering the paper-thin metal in miniature was hard, what about its 3D-printed carbon-fibre composite case barrel with integrated strap attachments? Carbon watches aren’t new, but Oris has harnessed the unique talents of 9T Labs in Zurich, whose proprietary “additive manufacture” process allows the polymer-suspended carbon to be “laid down” following the contours of the case. The result being a sinuous, organic surface pattern, with targeted reinforcement at every stress point.

Schaffhausen’s watchmaking powerhouse, IWC – once literally powered by the River Rhine, gushing past its factory – was quite the fence-straddler come WWII. It was founded by an American, it created the definitive British infantry watch at the behest of the MoD, whose Mark XI evo kept RAF pilots on time from 1948 to the 1980s. And yet, IWC also made the Luftwaffe’s B-Uhr observation chronometer, whose 55mm of precision instrumentation was invaluable to the in-flight navigator of every German bomber. But, with much metaphorical water gushed under the bridge, IWC’s now-totemic Big Pilot’s Watch keeps eyes firmly affixed skywards, paying due tribute to B-Uhr’s brilliant, bold utility (albeit in more wearable proportions). For MR PORTER's very own fleet of 500 specials, IWC has rendered things in bronze, right down to the onion crown, workable in the thickest of flying gloves.. Chocks verboten!

ETA’s self-winding Valjoux 7750 chronograph launched in 1972 as an industry “white label” movement, and, against all odds, managed to weather the decimation immediately wrought by quartz electronic technology on lesser mechanical calibres. Which probably explains why IWC has looked no further in replicating ETA’s rock-solid workhorse for its own. With added day-date indication, power reserve up to 65 hours and the stop/start/reset cam relay switched up with a super-crisp column-wheel hub, the resulting calibre 69385 serves as the ideal engine powering IWC’s classic 41mm Pilot’s tool watch – now in blue as cerulean as the evening sky.

This is the definitive pilot watch from Britain’s maverick aviation watchmaker, and everything a military airman would want on his wrist. Bremont’s default to chronometer adjusted, high-precision mechanics ticking inside, provides a failsafe backup, not to mention a talismanic counter to today’s next-gen avionics. Indeed, the face itself was inspired by the clocks found in the cockpit of a Spitfire, but founding brothers Messrs Nick and Giles English’s aviation background means the ALT1-P2 is more than a pretty face. Developed with (and for) military squadrons, the piston-shaped “Trip-Tick” case protects the delicate innards from shocks equivalent to a cockpit ejection. It is coated with a layer of carbon tough enough to emerge from a splashdown scratch-free.

No, it’s not a tribute to rave’s heyday: those three fluoro glowsticks are acid pops inspired by the radio compass found on every pilot’s analogue instrument array – a means of navigating in poor visibility via radio-wave beacons on the ground. Bell & Ross’ laser-guided design department in Paris has a history of clever puns on the cockpit, with radar and even artificial horizon-inspired dials. While this would never make it as standard-issue for the French naval Air Force – as plenty of Bell & Ross’ more utilitarian, monochrome creations have – gimmickry this is not, by sheer dint of such mil-spec endorsement. Tightly encased in high-tech ceramic, here you have a hardcore Swiss-mechanical fit for the flight deck, hard deck and deck proper (aircraft carrier or yacht both applicable).

Here is Switzerland’s 40-year-old knight in shining armour, revisited with a discerning eye for menswear’s more relaxed contemporary leanings. Back in 1983, Breitling developed its modern-era design language with a limited chronograph model for the Italian royal air force’s hotshot display team, stoically kitting it out with the relatively untried-and-untested Valjoux 72 mechanical movement – first offered to watchmakers just 10 years prior. At a time when electronic quartz technology was making the sign of the cross over mechanicals, this was bold. But then, we are talking Breitling. The Frecce Tricolori was a hit, the downstream Chronomat a mainstream smash and the rest is virile horological history; “a watch you’ll get noticed in without having to worry about it,” CEO Mr Georges Kern notes, correctly.

As mentioned at the start, Cartier’s predictably dapper Santos model was the first commercially available pilot watch, created by Mr Louis Cartier for his close friend and pioneering aviator, Mr Alberto Santos-Dumont. Unlike the stark utility brandished by the likes of IWC or Bremont, Cartier nor Santos-Dumont would never let something like functionality get in the way of stylishness. The resulting timepiece affects a more rounded-out, slimmer, sartorial look to the Santos, in keeping with the flamboyant Brazilian’s love of fashion. It’s the sort of timepiece with which you’d equip the captain of your private jet, say.