Pilot watches hold a special fascination for many seasoned and new collectors. Mid-century innovations in commercial air travel pushed many brands to truly innovate their watch technology so many pilot watches were their first of their kind.
Here we round up the world’s most iconic, historically significant, and best-selling pilot watches to add to your watch collection!
IWC Pilot Watch
IWC’s Pilot watch harkens back to the early days of aviation, blending together functionality with IWC’s signature pared down look for a distinctive watch that feels elegant while offering the same utilitarian features of traditional pilot’s watch. The crown, for example, is slightly over-sized to make it easier for early pilots (who had to fly in unheated cockpits) to set and wind their watch while wearing thick gloves and a padded flight suit.
Another key design feature of the IWC Pilot Watch is the equilateral triangle, flanked by two dots, at the 12 o’clock hour marker. This substitution was inspired by the cockpit-instrument look of 1930s and 1940s pilot watches and improved the dial’s legibility.
After developing the first independent chronograph push-piece in 1923, Breitling has long been considered the gold standard in aviation watches. Since that breakthrough, Breitling has focused heavily on precision timepieces specially designed for airline pilots. And in 1952, as commercial flight was booming, Breitling introduced the Navitimer.
The Navitimer was another novel design by Breitling that featured a slide rule bezel. This new rotating bezel allowed pilots to quickly calculate distance, air speed, flight time, fuel consumption, rate and time of climb and descent. The Navitimer remains one of the most beloved pilot watches, immediately recognizable for its distinctive and revolutionary bezel.
Rolex GMT Master
The Rolex GMT-Master was first introduced in 1954 for Pan American Airways pilots to wear during their long-haul and international flights. What made the Rolex GMT-Master an immediate sensation among Pan Am pilots was its rotating bezel. This breakthrough functionality allowed pilots to set the local time and a second time zone (usually Greenwich Mean Time which was then the world’s time standard) by simply rotating the 24-hour scale bezel.
Over the decades, the GMT-Master grown into an iconic Rolex model, thanks in large part to its colorful bezel which makes this classic model truly stand out from the pack.
The Omega Speedmaster is readily recognized for its affiliation to the early days of space exploration. (To wit: it’s regularly referred to as the “First Watch on the Moon,” after astronaut Buzz Aldrin wore his NASA-certified Omega Speedmaster during his historic walk on the moon’s surface in 1969.) However, the Speedmaster only really became the watch-of-choice for astronauts because it was such a precise pilot watch.
As NASA was beefing up its space program in the late 1950s, it largely recruited seasoned test pilots. Given that the chronograph had long since been a fundamental part of a pilot’s equipment, it was naturally, in turn, adopted as a part of an astronaut’s equipment. When NASA began accepting bids for a chronograph watch that could withstand the huge range of atmospheric conditions, only the Omega Speedmaster passed NASA’s rigorous tests.
Since then, Omega’s pilot-turned-astronaut Speedmaster watch has been an iconic chronograph and is a prized piece in any collection.
Hamilton Khaki Pilot Watch
The Hamilton Watch company began in 1892 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and was known for its high-quality watches. In short order, Hamilton began producing its original pilot watches in 1919; was selected as the watch brand to be worn by the first American Airmail service; and was the official watch of TWA, Eastern, United, and Northwest airlines in the 1930s. The American brand was also selected by the American forces during World War II to supply watches to its wartime pilots.
While Hamilton watches are now produced in Switzerland, its modern watch styles preserve its long history in the world of aviation as Hamilton’s brand aesthetic regularly brings military design cues into its signature styles. The Hamilton Khaki Pilot is a quintessential example of the brand’s proud tradition of developing reliable and robust pilot watches.