Pilot watches represent one of the purest forms of timekeeping. Clean, uncluttered, dateless and without any branding across the dial, they represent some of the simplest and easiest ways to read time.
To truly understand a pilot watch, one must first appreciate the challenges that aviation faced throughout its pioneer era. Below we’ll look at some of the most progressive design features that pilot watches incorporated and how they helped the brave men to imagine, design and test these new flying machines.
Worn on the Wrist
The first characteristic of a pilot watch is that it is worn on the wrist. While this may sound self-evident in today’s context, in the early 1900s time was primarily provided on clocks and pocket watches. Cartier’s Santos-Dumont wristwatch is considered to be a groundbreaking watch, as it was the first watch worn on a pilot’s wrist to help him navigate while flying. Simply put, this Santos-Dumont wristwatch symbolises the very first pilot watch.
One of the distinguishing factors of a pilot watch is its oversized crown. This enabled the pilot to easily adjust the time - even with thick leather gloves. Blériot’s Zenith watch was the first watch designed with this feature. It has been accepted that Santos-Dumont’s Cartier watch was the first watch for a pilot, but the Zenith watch was the first pilot’s watch - thanks to its oversized crown and readability.
The purpose of early pilot watches was not necessarily to read time, but rather to know how much time elapsed from one point to another. As a result, the minute hand required a high degree of accuracy and readability to minimize any mistakes or misinterpretations. Large luminescent hands, exaggerated numerals, and overall simplicity became the classic design option for pilot watches.
The history of pilot watches is highly connected with military aviation. Some watch manufacturers during WWII, including Hamilton, Laco, IWC or Longines to name a few, were commissioned to produce pilot watches tailored to their military needs. It is therefore not surprising that these watches were crafted with high levels of resistance to shock, vibrations and pressure.
The slide rule was first designed in the early 50s by Breitling. The famous Navitimer’s integrated circular slide rule was designed for a variety of flight calculations, enabling many types of mathematical conversion such as time, distance, speed, ascending and descending ratios, fuel consumption and more.
Throughout the pioneer era of aviation, the pilot watch played an instrumental role in aeronautic progress. It was an indispensable tool for the cockpit, specifically crafted for the needs on board. Horological progress would have not been as rapid without the need for pilot watches, and perhaps, innovative flying capabilities would have not been possible without the information pilot watches provided to its pilots.