December 31, 2021

The history of pilot watches is as fascinating as its achievements. Pilot's watches have that charm that puts them in a world of their own made up of flying above the clouds, where the blue of the sky turns black when these pilots turn into astronauts! And we have a pilot to thank for the fact that we are now wearing watches on our wrists. But now we are at the gate and ready for takeoff. Shall we start?

best luxury pilot watch

What is a pilot watch?

That's easy! A pilot watch is a particular watch created to help an airplane pilot do his job. But here we come to the first consideration to make: that is, the spread of technology. The first flight in human history on a heavier-than-air craft took place in 1903 thanks to the Wright brothers: that's just 120 years ago. On the other hand, portable clocks date back to 1505, more or less - so a few years after America was officially discovered.

While in watchmaking, there has been a much slower technical development, the process has been much quicker in aeronautics. From the first wood and canvas airplanes that made a few hundred meters leaps, the first man - Yuri Gagarin - made it to space only sixty years later. And pilot's watches have also undergone an evolution that has radically changed their shape, size, and required functions, starting with the first pilot's wristwatch, worn by Alberto de Santos Dumont on his Demoiselle in 1907, and arriving at the Omega Speedmaster, the watch that went to the Moon.

So, in these few years, pilot's watches have also changed. The very first pilot's watch is technically the Cartier Santos - but no one today would consider it one! These early timepieces then evolved, becoming large in size around the Great War years and then including other functions such as a chronograph to calculate the plane's course around the 1920s.

After that, they simply became technically more refined until the 1970s, where mechanical hand-wound and automatic watches were joined and often replaced by those mounting a more precise quartz mechanism.

A large part of their usefulness, that is, to serve for plotting the course, has faded since the invention of radar, but in any case, this skill remains fundamental in the characteristics of a pilot, just as it is taught to those who want to obtain a nautical license.

A note: when talking about pilot's watches, sometimes you will hear the term "Flieger" or "B-Uhren": these are German-derived terms used to define the military-style pilot's watches of the Second World War: besides the vintage specimens of these timepieces - which reach very high quotations on the collector's market - there are many modern editions that re-propose their fascinating design at a much more affordable price.

pilot watch collection

Why do pilots need a watch?

Try to think of an airship. The name itself should suggest something important: a ship of the skies. And since time immemorial, ships - those in the water - have to chart a course to get to their destination. Clocks have been fundamental for this reason since they allowed the precise calculation of the longitude of a point on a map. And so, with the development of aviation, they took on the same function in this new element: air rather than water.

With the development of transoceanic flights after Charles Lindbergh's famous crossing of 1927 and the progressive growth of aircraft, which began to carry many passengers, it was necessary to develop air navigation systems that would allow the plane to reach its destination, even without visible landmarks - and maritime navigation was adapted for this specific purpose.

The pilot, especially in larger commercial aircraft, was accompanied by a navigator, whose task was to calculate the route - and to do this, he used charts, compasses, rulers, a compass, and a watch. One of a pilot's skills was the ability to calculate the position, which is still a fundamental subject taught in flight schools, even if navigation by map has been made obsolete by the evolution of electronics installed on all aircraft.

So much so that it is still required for a pilot to wear a watch while doing his job. And finally, there is another reason. The pilot's watch represents a kind of symbol. The true airline pilot has earned that watch after a long course of theoretical and practical training. That watch in part represents him - and reminds him, perhaps with a bit of healthy nostalgia, of his past and present every time he looks at his wrist.

What makes a pilot's watch different?

A pilot's watch is not, in fact, remarkably different from any other watch: the main difference is the scales on the dial and the bezel that allow you to make specific calculations to fulfill navigation functions. In fact, it is much more practical to use a slide rule than a watch to make the same calculations. But one of the fundamental characteristics of any pilot's watch is that of reliability and precision.

When they were the only tools available to the navigator and pilot, that is until World War II when all the development of technologies such as radio and radar happened, they were all that separated an aviator's flight from a possible tragic outcome - and so the watches had to be of absolute quality.

day date pilot watch

Why are pilot's watches so big?

Pilot's watches are historically large. So big that it's often difficult to wear them today, especially for those with a normal, or even, small wrist. But size has nothing to do with a purely aesthetic aspect.

This happened for two main reasons: the first was that these watches were initially worn over the heavy jackets that protected the aviators of the time from cold and weather, and therefore needed to be large and robust: in fact, many pilot watches, in addition to being large, also were secured by a very thick leather strap reinforced with steel studs.

The second reason was that, to ensure maximum precision, their movement was among those traditionally used in pocket watches. Even if we are simplifying a lot, the larger the balance wheel, the less it will be subject to environmental interference such as movement and shock. Therefore, the more accurate the watch will be.

Today, the size of pilot's watches - or rather, pilot-style watches - has come down a lot, so that anyone can wear such a watch without looking like he stole it from his older brother: after all, you have to meet market demands!

pilot watch lume

Why do pilot's watches have a triangle?

The triangle at the top of the dial of the traditional pilot's watches also has its important function, which takes us back to the heroic days of aviation. Pilot's watches and all military watches were often used during night missions - and precisely to make them easier to read in these cases, the convention was introduced to display a large triangle on the dial at twelve o'clock.

Its function is the same as that of the inverted triangle on the rotating bezel of the diver: to provide an easily identifiable reference point for precise information in the shortest possible time. Thus, any pilot, seeing the familiar shape of the triangle glowing in the night, would instantly know that that glowing triangle corresponded to twelve o'clock and could immediately calculate the time without being mistaken.

day date pilot watch

Do pilots wear digital watches?

As we have said, the pilot's watch has now become little more than a backup system to the instruments present in any cockpit, even those of the smallest and least equipped aircraft.

However, it is necessary for the pilot to be able, in case of emergency, to cope with the necessity and use an accurate clock to make the calculations that are needed to plot a course - and electronic clocks - i.e., those based on systems other than the traditional mechanical system, whether analog or digital, are more than suitable for the purpose: indeed, they are usually even more accurate.

In fact, it doesn't matter what the watch looks like: what matters, for a pilot facing an emergency, is that it is reliable and accurate: all the rest is of little importance.

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20 Best Pilot Watches Under $1,000 for Men

A pilot’s watch is an extraordinary machine that needs to be precise and reliable - and because of these fundamental characteristics, it goes without saying that it cannot be a cheap item. Although such high-profile houses produce some magnificent pilot’s watches as IWC and Omega, there are several equally good alternatives even below the fateful four-figure threshold - or just above - that represent an excellent choice for both pilots and those who love the world of aviation and want to wear a piece of it on their wrist.

That’s why we will list below twenty different proposals for watches that respect these characteristics: to be reliable, accurate, and possess that character that lies somewhere between vintage and sporty that makes them a true statement of elegance, as well as functionality. 

The modern pilot's watches are fitted with a huge variety of movements, mechanical and electronic, which reflects on their price. But on all counts, the automatic watch accuracy has never been better in all horological history. The same can be said for their resistance and capability to withstand stress and constant use: whatever you throw at it, you will find your quartz-based or automatic watch lifespan completely unaffected by most external situations. Except some massive damage, that is: after all, most of these timepieces are "tool watches" and are built like a wrist-sized steel tank.

You will find here a variety of time-only and chronograph watches (as well as a few “wildcards”) with a pilot’s vibe so that you can choose the design and functions you like most. They will include watches coming from major brands as well as microbrand watches.

 

1 - Orient Pilot 

Orient makes excellent watches at budget prices through all of its product lists, which also shows in this case. The pilot is a big watch with its 42 mm of diameter, but still very wearable nonetheless, even for small-wristed people. It features an automatic watch movement with 40 hours of power reserve, a date display, and a 100-meter water resistance, which would come useful if you miss your landing spot and end up in the water. And the price of less than $300 is hard to beat for a timepiece of this stature.

 

2 - SeaGull 1963 Chronograph

If you are raising an eyebrow about the words “quality” and “Chinese” in the same sentence, please relax. This timepiece is a true little gem of horology that countless watch lovers around the world have known and appreciated. The ST3 chronograph movement is based on an original Swiss design by Venus and is both sturdy and precise enough to wow you. The watch has a 38 mm size and a vintage charm (and a list price) that will win you over.

 

3 - Marathon Pilot’s Navigator

You might have heard about the sturdy Marathon timepieces - well, this is a typical one. It was developed initially in 1986 at the request of the Airforce for a practical, no-frills, affordable timepiece, and it was so good that it sells up to these days. It offers a lightweight composite case and a very legible dial featuring the tritium glass tube technology and is powered by a workhorse Swiss-Made ETA quartz movement. 

 

4 - Avi-8 Hawker Hurricane AV 4011

This modern timepiece homages one of the best British fighter-bombers of WWII and does it in style, with many design elements that evoke the airplane it is inspired to and its heroic exploits. The watch comes in a 42 mm stainless steel case and houses a robust Miyota quartz chronograph movement. It also offers a handy 50-meter water resistance and comes at a very charming price as well, a tad over $200.

 

5 - Casio G-Shock Gravity Master GR-B200

The Gravity Master is Casio’s G-Shock line designed for aviation enthusiasts, and it shows in spades. It is a big (51 mm) technical watch, fitted with a reliable Casio quartz movement and many other functions like compass, altimeter, and barometer. Like all the G-Shocks, its carbon-fiber-reinforced resin case makes it practically indestructible - so if you want something rugged, this would be it.

 

6 - Davosa Aviator Quartz Chronograph

The class of this vintage-inspired chronographer with a flyback function is pretty evident from its design, which closely matches the timepieces that have rendered pilot’s chronographs like this a great catch for watch lovers from all over the world. The ribbed bezel shows the elegant tricompax design of the sub-dials and houses a modern, sturdy Swiss-made quartz caliber, and at that price, around $400, it is definitely a steal. 

white dial aviator chronograph watch

7 - Laco Aachen 42 Ref. 861688.2

Are you looking for a Flieger which is actually made by a German company. Laco has been active since 1925 and offers a very affordable line of beautiful timepieces in Flieger style. The Aachen has a 42 mm stainless steel case featuring a simple, clean black dial with contrasting indices in white with generous lume and nothing else except the hands. It mounts the Laco 21 automatic caliber (a design from Miyota), shown through its transparent case back.

 

8 - Bulova Lunar Pilot

The Lunar Pilot is a 43 mm timepiece, a faithful version of the other watch worn on the Moon by Apollo XV’s astronaut Dave Scott when his official Omega Speedmaster broke. The watch comes with all the charm from the period, plus it has been fitted with the innovative and ultra-precise quartz-based 262Hz caliber from Citizen that features a sweeping hand second. And if you are still not convinced, the affordable $500 price will possibly make you reconsider.

 

9 - Citizen Promaster Skyhawk AT

Citizen has always been a solid hitter in pilot’s watches, and this beautiful timepiece makes no exception. The Skyhawk comes after the legendary Navihawk and combines its design with the power of modern Citizen technology - namely its Eco Drivequartz caliber. This solar-powered system connects to a local atomic clock to ensure perfect timekeeping. More, you will get indications for almost everything you can ask, plus a water resistance of 200 meters.

 

10 - Davosa Simplex Automatic

The Davosa Simplex is a watch that mixes the rigorous design of its dial, strictly derived from a B-Uhr. It adds an unexpected double indicator of day and date to give it a more contemporary character, which brings it straight to modern business, complete with its leather wristband with contrast stitching. As in all Davosa timepieces, the detail of finishing and materials is excellent, and the price will put a smile on your face as well.

davosa aviator watch

11 - Alpina Startimerx Balance

The Alpina Startimerx Balance is a mix and match of everything - at first sight it seems like a traditional pilot’s watch - a bit more modern due to its black case. Instead, it is a connected smart device with an analog display that pairs with your phone to provide a countless amount of data like rate monitoring, activity tracking, get-active alerts, workout with GPS tracking (connected GPS), sleep monitoring, body temperature, and many more. 

 

12 - Stowa Verus 40

Stowa is one of the modern companies making beautiful Fliegers - so classily designed, in this case, that it won a prestigious design award, the Red Dot. The Verus 40 gives you all the suggestions of a WWII-inspired Flieger, with subtle modern accents in orange, in an almost compact size of 40 mm, making it highly wearable. More, it houses a Swiss-made top-grade Sellita SW200-1 automatic movement.

 

13 - Davosa Neoteric Pilot Red-Black

This excellent timepiece from Davosa combines the classic Flieger design with the more contemporary, post-industrial accents of black and red, which are also repeated on the wristband. The hands are covered with a generous amount of lume and are partially skeletonized to reveal the inner red circle, where you can read the minutes. The watch features a date display and mounts a DAV321 automatic caliber.

best automatic pilot watch

14 - Seiko Brightz Flight Expert SAGA 217

This collection of solar-powered watches from Seiko proposes an array of great-looking. These affordable pilot watches offer their wearer the style of a dress watch and the functions of a tool watch, tucked in a robust and lightweight 42 mm titanium case. On the dial of the SAGA 217, you’ll find indicators for all the timezones of the world, with automatic radio-controlled time-synching. The timepiece offers a water resistance of 100 meters as well.

 

15 - MKII Cruxible Type-A11 

This watch comes as a re-issue of a historical model, the A11, the iconic USA mil-spec watch of WWII - updated to modern technology. The result is this timepiece, with a distinctively elegant and subdued design - and a more petite frame at 39 mm. The Cruxible features quality materials and finishings and transmits an aura of understated sophistication that makes it an excellent timepiece for every situation. 

 

16 - Farer Pilot Automatic

If it weren’t for the unexpected color combination of the dial and hands and the modern materials, the Pilot Automatic from Farer would easily pass for a vintage B-Uhr watch. This timepiece feels at ease wherever, but its manageable size of less than 40 mm and design elements tend to express better in a meeting room than an airplane’s cockpit. However, there is no doubt that the watch is lovely and the price is about right. 

 

17 - Hamilton Khaki Aviation Pilot Pioneer Mechanical

If you want to find a watch from a top Swiss Maison offering a definite military style at a great price, go no farther than Hamilton. The Khaki is an iconic offering of this niche. This model, featuring the innovative hand-wound Hamilton H-50 movement with 80 hours of power reserve, proves that you can get a lot of watch power while requiring an amount of money most people can afford to spend.

 

18 - Davosa Newton Pilot Day Date 

This great-looking timepiece from Davosa elaborates on the concept of the Flieger to give it a more business outlook, and the two concentric dials of different finishes achieve this end. The watch offers a day/date display over a very legible index design that is made to be consulted quickly. The watch comes with an automatic DAV 3023 caliber with a 38-hour power reserve.

Davosa newtone day-date swiss made automatic pilot watch

19 - Archimede Pilot 39

Despite the name, Archimede is another German brand offering well-made Fliegers tooled to (almost) perfection. The watch's size is on the small side - 39 mm - and the case, made by Ickler, is excellent. Under the well-finished matte black dial with a date window at six - a concession to modernity - the timepiece houses a genuine ETA 2824 automatic movement with a power reserve of 38 hours, displayed through the transparent case back. 

 

20 - IWC Little Prince Mark XVIII Pilot’s Watch

We know that we are WAY over our self-imposed budget, but we could not close this list without citing the quintessential “Pilot’s watch for non-pilots,” as it is known colloquially in the watch community. Whatever its scope, the Little Prince is a gorgeous watch that will enthrall you with its perfect 40 mm size and lovely blue dial. It mounts the IWC 35111 caliber, an automatic movement offering 42 hours of power reserve.

 

In closing

Whatever your passion for the air and aviation, you are more than justified: flying has always been a dream for generations of men, who found their freedom only above the clouds. And to accompany them, their trusty assistant, the pilot's watch.

Even if today it is no longer this fundamental, this indissoluble bond between man and machine resists, as if it were a sign of this new conquered freedom, which is pushing us higher and higher in the sky, where the blue becomes black and is then lost in the starry universe beyond.

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The Davosa-USA.com website is NOT affiliated in any way with Audemars Piguet, Franck Muller USA, Inc. or Richemont Companies, Seiko, or any other brand which is not Davosa Swiss. Rolex is a registered trademark of Rolex USA. Davosa-USA website is not an authorized dealer, reseller, or distributor for Rolex and is in NO WAY affiliated with Rolex SA or Rolex USA or any other brand besides Davosa Swiss.
December 31, 2021 — Davosa Editor

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