Pilot watches were originally watches made specifically for pilots, such as the classic British RAF aviator watches or the B-Uhr created for the German Luftwaffe in World War II. Classic pilot watches were characterised by several common details including:
- an easy to read face
- a large case to fit over pilot jackets
- a large crown that could be operated whilst wearing pilot gloves
- sometimes they would feature a rotating bezel
- sometimes they would have chronograph features
Nowadays, pilot or aviator watches are more of a design style rather than the vital survival tool they once were. Some of the most famous and popular watches in the world, such as the Omega Speedmaster can actually be defined as pilot watches. Aviator watches still have large faces, however to correctly identify a pilot watch as such nowadays is much more vague.
Nice pilot watch brands
A. Lange & Söhne
British RAF aviator watches
During World War II Britain developed a production standard called WWW: Wrist Watch Waterproof.
With British watchmakers focused on building naval and aviation instruments, the British Ministry of Defense turned to neutral Swiss watchmakers to fulfill the massive need. In response to this request, a group of 12 companies collectively known as “the dirty dozen” implemented the specification: Buen, Cyma, Eterna, Grana, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Lemania, Longines, IWC, Omega, Record, Timor and Vertex.
These were waterproof, with luminous hands, chronometer grade movements, durable timepieces. They were built to standup to the toughest war conditions.
Luftwafe pilot watches
Five watch manufacturers manufactured watches for the Luftwaffe (Germany’s air force): A. Lange & Söhne, IWC, Laco, Stowa and Wempe. Those watches were called B-Uhren, an abbreviation of Beobachtungsuhren, which means “observation watches” in German, also known as navigator’s watches, pilot watches or Flieger watch. The B-Uhr was an essential tool for Luftwaffe pilot. Its functional design provides a historical reference for many modern pilot watches.
These watches included high-class pocket watch movements:
- Lange & Söhne: Cal. 48/1
- Laco: Durowe cal. D 5
- Stowa: Unitas cal. 2812
- Wempe: Thommen cal. 310
- IWC: Cal. 52 SC (SC = seconde central)
The Imperial Air Ministry (Reichsluftfahrtministerium – RLM) defined the specifications of these watches. On the basis of these specifications, the watches had the following features in common:
- Case diameter of 55 mm
- Engraving with FL 23883 on the case’s back and left side (FL = flight, 23 = navigation, 883 = specification by the German Research Institute for Aviation (Deutsche Versuchsanstalt für Luftfahrt))
- Large crowns, in order to be able to operate with a pair of gloves
- Hacking movement (by pulling the crown, the second hand stops / important for a precise time setting)
- Breguet balance wheel
- Regulated and tested as chronometers
- Leather strap (for easy attachment on a flight jacket’s sleeve)
Regulated to the highest of chronometer standards, B-Uhr watches were precisely synchronized using radio signals from the German Naval Observatory. These tools had to be deadly accurate in order to successfully intercept targets on the field.
At 55mm, these were huge watches, but they served a purpose. Along with an extended double-riveted leather strap, the B-Uhr was designed to be worn over flight jackets, and it’s massive size provided the navigator with unambiguous legibility.
Additionally, mechanical movements were housed in anti-magnetic iron cages to prevent electrical interference from flight equipment and the oversized onion-shaped crowns allowed smooth operation while wearing flight gloves.
Seikosha: the Japanese Kamikaze Watch
Seikosha was at the time of World War II a branch of the popular watch company Seiko that has produced watches and clocks for military and civilians since the 19th century.
The oversized case and crown were designed to be worn over flight equipment and operated with thick leather gloves. A unique feature of this Japanese pilot watch is a turntable bezel, allowing for marking of elapsed time during missions.