Have you ever noticed that pilots, who are pretty stylish as a rule (see – bomber jackets, aviators, jumpsuits and Tom Cruise) sport some seriously technical looking watches, often on a day-to-day basis?
Pilot watches have been a mainstay in an aviator’s arsenal almost as long as aviation itself. But how did the aviator’s watch first come about? The story has it that Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont – one of the first European pioneers of aviation – was having a drink with his friend, watchmaker Louis Cartier. Being the year of 1906, flight was still a fledgling undertaking, with aviators having only just left the nest. Santos-Dumont complained to Cartier about the difficulty in fishing out a pocket watch to calculate time and distance while keeping his hands on the flight controls.
Although various incarnations of the wrist watch had already been established (mostly in the form of high-end bracelets worn as a women’s fashion accessory) Cartier knuckled down and set about creating a wrist watch specifically designed for use by aviators. With a leather strap and a small buckle, Cartier dubbed his invention the ‘Santos’ wristwatch, after his friend, whose use of it thereafter popularised the wristwatch for the world at large.
Three years later, in 1909, with a Zenith wristwatch strapped to his wrist, Frenchman Louis Bleriot crossed 49 km of open water from Calais to Dover in his Type XI monoplane. The English Channel crossing was a feat that won Bleriot a tidy sum of prize money, as well as a place in the history books, but the Zenith itself was no hitchhiking fashion accessory. With a luminous dial and hands for readability, oversized numerals and a large crown for turning with gloved fingers, the Zenith was specifically designed for the readability and comfort of the aviator. And, as an added bonus, the watch came with a case that could be attached to the instrument panel of the aircraft. Soon, thanks to Bleriot’s advertising, any serious French aviator worth their salt wouldn’t be seen without one.
In 1914, Gaston Breitling, the son of Leon Breitling took control of the Breitling company founded by his father. Breitling was held in high esteem for its precision timers and chronographs – a specific type of watch that is used as a stopwatch combined with the standard watch display. A basic chronograph has an independent sweep second hand; it can be started, stopped, and returned to zero by successive pressure on the stem.
The chronograph was the most contemporary of all time keeping devices. For the chronograph to measure the very short time intervals required a high level of precision and accuracy in both manufacture and assembly. The following year, Gaston Breitling invented the first wristwatch chronograph with a push piece independent from the crown to handle all additional functions. These chronographs became popular with aviators as they allowed pilots to make calculations and conduct precise timing with greater ease.
Breitling began to supply onboard chronographs for aircraft in the late 1930s. Garnering customers like the Royal Air Force, Breitling began producing analogue cockpit clocks for RAF icons like the Spitfire and Lancaster bomber.
With the onset of World War II, time-dependant manoeuvres became crucial for the successful navigation and synchronisation of troops. The American produced A-11, dubbed ‘the watch that won the war’ was one of the most commonly issued watches supplied to Allied forces. The A-11 was not a specific model of watch per say, but a standard implemented by American watch manufacturers that implemented design features such as large, clear numbers and larger crown sizes from aviation watches that came before.
One of the British military’s stipulations for a pilot’s watch was resistance to magnetism. The magnetic fields generated by the giant radial engines of Spitfires and Hurricanes could seriously mess with the regulating hairspring, a tiny, flat-coiled strip of metal which can become magnetized – causing it to stick. Since the watch’s accuracy is based on the precise tuning of this spring to oscillate the balance wheel, a magnetic field can throw out the whole mechanism, causing the watch to become erratic. To remedy this, the Mk. 11, commissioned by the British Ministry of Defence and manufactured by IWC Schauffhausen and Jaeger-Lecoultre (JLC) was shielded from magnetism with a Faraday cage, setting the standard for countless designs since.
During the aviation boom following WWII, Breitling continued the production of onboard chronographs for manufacturers including Boeing, Lockheed and Douglas. Breitling-Wakmann instrument panel chronographs (produced in partnership with New York importer and distributor Wakmann) becoming as familiar to pilots as the watches around their wrists.
The Breitling Navitimer, released between 1952 and 1954, was developed in conjunction with the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). Specifically for AOPA members, the earliest models, powered by both Venus and Valjoux manual movements, feature AOPA’s winged logo prominently atop their black dials. The Navitimer’s three logarithmic scales, including one taken from the “E6B” pilot’s circular slide rule, lent the timepiece an even greater level of functionality. According to Breitling the Navitimer has become “a cult object for pilots and aviation enthusiasts, it has been continuously manufactured for almost 60 years – the world’s oldest mechanical chronograph still in production”. The Navitimer is referred to as the first flight computer chronograph, becoming one of the most iconic pilot wrist watches available.
During the Cold War, space craft was as greater subject of research as aircraft. The competition between nations for supremacy in space exploration was fierce and cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin’s first voyage into outer space remains as incredible a feat today as it did 56 years ago. Yet its Gargarin’s watch of choice that has remained a hotly contested topic.
Trawling through historical forums and accounts online, it appears that a Sturmanskie wrist watch, issued to graduates from the Chkalov Air Force Pilot School in Orenberg is the generally accepted model thought to have been fixed to the arm attached to the first person in space. However, this model was only issued to students until 1953 – four years before Gagarin himself graduated. Sadly, Gagarin died in 1968 when the MiG-15 training jet he was piloting crashed, and the mystery of his pick for the first watch in space endures.
The first wrist chronograph, the Breitling Navitimer Cosmonaut, was worn on the wrist of cosmonaut Scott Carpenter later that year, who orbited the Earth three times aboard the Aurora 7 capsule. Optimised for use in space, the Navitimer Cosmonaut had a 24-hour graduation – with an hour hand that makes one complete revolution, 360°, in a day (24 hours per revolution). On earth, the Navitimer itself had been launched in 1952, with a rotating bezel that contains a functional circular slide rule for metric to standard conversion and fuel consumption, air speed and distance calculations.
But it was the Omega Speedmaster that was selected by NASA as the watch to journey to the moon. Subjected to strenuous and prolonged testing regimes, the watch endured temperature cycling in near-vacuum conditions, gauging its resistance to humidity, shock, vibration and acoustic noise. It passed and Buzz Aldrin elected to wear the 105.012 Speedmaster as he walked on the surface of the moon. Aldrin later stated that the watch “was optional to wear while we were walking on the surface of the Moon … few things are less necessary when walking around on the Moon than knowing what time it is in Houston, Texas. Nonetheless, being a watch guy, I decided to strap the Speedmaster onto my right wrist around the outside of my bulky spacesuit”.
Like in the past, contemporary pilot watches feature functionalities that are specifically suited to flying, with a few high-tech additions. Garmin, known for its avionics and radar suites, is are embracing the very latest in technological advances, venturing into the world of pilot-orientated wrist watches. Their most recent offering, the D2 Bravo Titanium Aviator Watch was introduced in May 2016 and features both METAR and TAF screens for live weather information at a glance. Additional features include built in GPS, altimeters, barometers and compasses. Much like Garmin’s panel mounted navigation products in aircraft, the D2 Bravo’s dedicated ‘direct-to’ and ‘nearest’ buttons connect a wearer to a worldwide airport database.
Pat Coleman, Aviation Sales and Marketing Manager for Australia and New Zealand explains that these features “allow pilots to quickly navigate to airports directly from their watch. As digital watches, they are able to calculate figures that would normally require an old fashioned E6-B flight computer” says. “From calculating fuel/time/distance to practicing holds during instrument training flights, time has always been very important to aviation”. As the latest in Garmin’s line of Aviator Watches, the D2 Bravo Titanium is equipped with “smartwatch capabilities, optical heart rate (monitoring), and doubles as an activity tracker by incorporating customized step counts and distance measurements, with reminders to get up and move, and more”.
Like something you would find in Inspector Gadget’s arsenal, Breitling’s Emergency is the first wristwatch with a built in, dual frequency distress beacon. Introduced in 2013, the latest incarnation of the Emergency, the Emergency II has the capability to broadcast a distress signal on the 406MHz band, a digital frequency that’s part of the COSPAS-SARSAT international satellite alert system. Once the Emergency’s antennas are activated and deployed from the watches’ titanium casing, the satellites can fix the wearer’s position precisely for search and rescue teams to locate the wearer.
The Breitling Emergency watch transmits a first digital signal on the 406 MHz frequency intended for satellites and lasting 0.44 seconds every 50 seconds; as well as a second analogue signal on the 121.5 MHz homing and rescue frequency, lasting 0.75 seconds every 2.25 seconds.
Sounds cool, but does it work? Yep! Quentin Smith, the first pilot to fly to both the North and South Poles by helicopter found himself in hot water when he had to ditch an aircraft in the freezing South Atlantic sea of Antarctica. Fortunately, Smith and his co-pilot were equipped with Breitling’s Emergency, activating the beacon to alert search and rescue teams. Both lived to fly another day.
Assembly of aviation watches has also changed with contemporary technology. Muehle-Glashuette has a long and illustrious history, spanning 5 generations of family ownership. Peter Petzold, Director at Define Watches and representative for Muehle-Glashuette Australia talked me through the manufacturing procedure; “Muehle-Glashuette has several in-house manufacturing processes …a serious collaboration between watch designers & watchmakers is undertaken with the primary objective to meet end-user requirements in the most precise way possible. Once a successful design has been created, …state-of-the-art, precision CNC machines cut the parts which form the components exact to the nearest thousandth of a millimetre”.
For Muehle-Glashuette, Mr Petzold has seen that the sophistication of computer technology “has increased the effectiveness of part production…It has allowed us to enhance standards and increase efficiency without compromising quality or bespoke attention to detail. “(computers) allow for stricter controls and better facilities to meet aviation standard requirements for the precision of (Muehle-Glashuette) timepieces”.
However, despite the projected trends in computerisation and manufacturing, there’s room for us humans yet, with some manual assembly processes having been retained. Mr Petzolz explains that the company still “conducts an additional stage in production, manually finishing parts by hand”. Petzolz goes on to explain that during this stage, “each part is deburred by hand and finished according to requirements (ensuring) absolute smoothness, robustness and fine detail.” Once complete, each component is assembled “from start to finish by one watchmaker to ensure error-free assembly and optimal care”.
Relative newcomers to the aviation wristwatch scene, the Bremont Watch Company launched its collection of highly crafted aviation inspired timepieces in 2007. Bremont was founded in Britain by brothers Nick and Giles English. The brother’s father, Dr Euan English was an award-winning aerobatics pilot with an aeronautical engineering PhD from Cambridge. But in a horrific accident in 1995, Euan died while training for an air show in their WWII Harvard. Nick, who was also on board as co-pilot survived the crash, but broke over 30 bones in the impact.
A year later, the brothers had returned to flying but during a trip across France, the brothers found themselves in severe weather and had to make an emergency landing in a pea field in Champagne. As luck would have it, the owner of the field, Antoine Bremont – was a famer and former WWII pilot. Despite the likely pea-losses, the farmer invited the brothers to say in his farmhouse which was decked out with a selection of restored wall clocks. On his wrist, the farmer wore a watch that held special significance, as it was given to him by his father.
Bremont reminded the brothers of their father. So much so in fact, that his namesake was chosen for the range of watches the brothers came to design in honour of their father – who had a penchant for watches himself. Having settled on a name, the Bremont outfit embarked on a strenuous research and development program involving extreme climatic and height testing.
In a collaboration between Bremont and Martin-Baker (the company responsible for supplying 70% of the world’s air-forces with ejection seat technology) a new range of watches were subjected to the same rigorous testing as ejection seats – just in case. Together they released the MB chronometer series, with the MBII and MBIII becoming Bremont’s best sellers.
And what of the MBI designation you ask? Well, that watch is reserved solely for aviators who have ejected from an aircraft using a Martin-Baker seat. And they aren’t joking – vising the Bremont website, there is only a ‘register of interest’ tab available for the MBI, with a notice underneath stating that “this watch is available to ejectees only.”
In 2016 Bremont also released the Limited Edition Boeing 100 timepiece to commemorate Boeing’s 100th anniversary. The partnership allowed Bremont extensive access both to Boeing’s material and manufacturing technology at the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Sheffield, UK.
But not all watch companies capitalize on the technological boons of our time. German brand Laco has been manufacturing watches from 1925. Then known as Lacher & Company/Durowe, Laco manufactured some of the infamous World War II B-Uhren watches. When the RLM (Reichs-Luftfahrtministerium), responsible for German aircraft development, started sourcing time pieces for the coordination of aircraft bombing raids, designers settled on a design that overcompensated rather than falling short of the mark.
B-Uhren is an abbreviation for “Beobachtungs-uhren” which translates to ‘Observation watches’, and they certainly are observable. The 55 millimetre watch face, with large white numerals on black backing made them unmistakably legible, and the ‘oversized’ design quickly became an enduring design that has continued through to the wrist watches of today’s aviators.
The B-Uhren were property of the Luftwaffe, not the navigators themselves. Instead, the navigator was issued with a watch before a mission, having to return it after the flights completion. An accurate watch was paramount for navigation, so all the B-Uhren watches were regulated and tested to the highest chronometer standards of the Deutsche Seewarte in Hamburg.
Of the five manufacturers of the original B-uhren, Laco is the only company to produce historically accurate watches of the B-uhren design. “The pilot watches today are much more (than) a timekeeper – they preserve the spirit of adventures from the past” explains Sara Ruhmann, a representative of Laco “the style of the 55-millimetre original aviator watch has become a classic and sets the standard for many watches today”. Although Laco has embraced the modernisation of their range’s time-keeping parts for accuracy, they have added little else in the way of modern tech, preferring to go with a classic formula instead. “There are some features which aviator watches have today” explains Sara “but Laco sticks very much to the original ones from the past”.
As you might expect, many companies that design aviator watches also work closely with the aviation industry. The Breitling company supports the restoration of numerous aircraft such as the Lockheed Super Constellation and the Douglas DC-3. Today there are less than 150 DC-3 aircraft in flightworthy condition worldwide. Breitling’s DC-3, HB-IRJ was delivered to American Airlines in 1940 and first used by the American military between 1942 and 1944, before resuming service on behalf of various commercial airlines.
Fortunately for us, Breitling isn’t one to leave the smart looking DC-3 in the hangar. Over 2017, the Breitling DC-3 will be doing a grand world tour. Touted by Breitling as “an amazing accomplishment for this legendary plane” Breitling will be celebrating the aircraft’s 77th birthday on the road, and with some snazzy cargo too – 500 limited edition Navitimers will also be onboard throughout the journey, distinguished by a case back engraved with the Breitling DC-3 World Tour logo. On the motivations behind taking on such a project, Breitling states that “by supporting such legendary aircraft…the brand with the winged B asserts its determination to preserve the aeronautical legacy – the magnificent adventure with which its own history is so intimately entwined”.
Breitling has also sponsored the Breitling Orbiter 3, which in 1999 became the first balloon to fly around the world non-stop and currently funds the Breitling Jet Team – seven L-39C Albatros jets tasked with performing in meticulous coordination and mastery.
Timekeeping has been around for millennia. Ancient Egyptians divided the day into two 12-hour periods, using large obelisks to track the movement of the sun. Candle clocks were used in China, Japan, England and Mesopotamia and the Shepherd’s dial or Timestick, based on the same idea as a sun dial, was used widely in India and Tibet. But with the evolution of the beautifully detailed and highly technical aviator’s wrist watch developing so closely alongside aviation, it looks like we won’t be dragging obelisks or stone sun-dials into the cockpit any time soon.