The Most Iconic Pilot's Watches

High-flying history for your wrist.

a pilot wearing a watch in a cockpit
Laco Watches

Most people that wear pilot's watches today don't fly planes. And actual modern pilots don't rely on pilot's watches. But none of that matters, because it's what these once critical tools represent that makes them so compelling.

Perhaps even more than dive watches, pilot's watches conjure adventure — whether it's the dangerous experiments of early aviators, the dangerous jobs of military pilots or even the dazzlingly technical cockpits of commercial airlines. They can evoke the sense of wonder the general public had toward flight in the 20th century (before air travel became the mundane necessity of moving cramped human cargo that it mostly is today).

a black and white photo of a pilot wearing a pilots watch
Laco Watches

Most of all, though, they're packed with history. Pilots have used watches in many ways and the watches have taken many forms over the decades. They range from those with a primary focus on durability, timekeeping accuracy and plain legibility to those crammed with scales and complications for all manner of applications. Variety is another part of what makes this genre of watches so fun and interesting. And no matter what kind of pilot's watch you might have on your wrist, it'll have a palpable sense of purpose.

The following watches illustrate just how broad the genre of pilot's watches can be, and yet each is uncontroversially iconic (at least among watches). There might be historically important watches (like the Longines Hour Angle) and many more very cool and interesting ones too, but here we're highlighting those we feel any newcomer to watches should know about first. Let their backstories and influential designs be like landmarks in a deeper look into this vast subject — or in your next purchase.

Cartier Santos

cartier santos watch

Produced By: Cartier
Year Introduced: 1904

The first dedicated wristwatch for men was also a pilot's watch. Sure, it looks dressy to our modern eyes and doesn't have many characteristics you'll find among other pilot's watches, but Cartier made it specifically for one of the earliest aviators to use during his experimental flights — at a time when wristwatches were (primarily) only made for women. It might've been the first pilot's watch, but its influence is felt even more in dress watches and the evolution of wristwatches themselves.

Early Pilot's Watches

vintage pilot's watch

Produced By: Zenith, Longines, Helvetia, etc.
Year Introduced: Early 1900s

The distinctive, oversized Arabic numerals, the cathedral hands, the fluted bezel, the giant crown for operating with gloves... they're all distinctive features found on some of the earliest aeronautically oriented watches. They weren't, however, initially associated with aviation — pocket watches of the time featured similar designs and were also sometimes converted to wristwatches and used by soldiers in the field.

Though the features were somewhat generic and produced by a number of companies, they're today perhaps most associated with Zenith. The company has claim to one of the earliest and most notable examples of it in the timepiece aviator Louis Blériot strapped to his wrist for his pioneering flight across the English Channel in 1909. It was one of the earliest examples of a pilot's watch as we'd recognize them today, and the company later produced onboard instruments with similar traits.

Flieger Type A

flieger type a watch

Produced By: IWC, A. Lange & Söhne, Wempe, Laco, Stowa
Year Introduced: Early 1940s

Early 1940s, Germany. War. A couple of styles of watches were made for the German air force that have become the template for countless more. They're called by the German word for "pilot": Flieger or by the German word Beobachtungs-uhren, mercifully abbreviated to B-uhr (or plural: B-uhren), literally meaning "observation watches."

The design known as the Type A is characterized by its simplicity and focus on legibility. The 12 o'clock triangle is meant to help orient the pilot's eye immediately, the hands are fat for easy reading and the crown is big for operating while wearing gloves. The watches themselves were also huge, at 55mm wide, though modern versions are thankfully more wearable. Another iconic evolution of the design is found in the Mark XI made by IWC and Jaeger-LeCoultre.

Flieger Type B

flieger type b

Produced By: IWC, A. Lange & Söhne, Wempe, Laco, Stowa
Year Introduced: Early 1940s

Produced alongside the Type A was, of course, the B. The busier dial emphasizes the minutes on the outer track and a very short hand indicates hours at the center. Whereas the Type A was a more standard watch design made to optimize basic time telling, the Type B features were specifically intended for navigators.

Like these Fliegers and other early pilot's watches, accuracy and readability with lumed dial elements were important features. Necessity also dictated they be durable and antimagnetic. Later, these time-only A and B Fliegers would be joined by chronograph variants called, naturally, Fliegerchronograph.

Bundeswehr Chronographs

bundeswehr chronograph watch

Produced By: Heuer, Leonidas, Sinn
Year Introduced: 1955

A collector favorite, these chronographs are legendary for having been military-issued, having incredible build and quality and featuring the now exotic flyback chronograph feature — but also just for being perfect sport watches from a modern perspective.

It doesn't hurt that, unlike many vintage watches that are very small and some pilot watches that are gigantic, the "Bund" watches, as they're called, are a contemporary-feeling 42mm. The flyback chronograph is a feature found on a number of pilot's chronographs offering the ability to restart the chronograph without first stopping and resetting it.

Breitling Navitimer

breitling navitimer watch

Produced By: Breitling
Year Introduced: 1954

Whereas some pilot's watches focus on minimalism for legibility, Breitling's Navitimer is the complete opposite — that's how vastly different pilot's watches can be. The Navitimer has a look like nothing else, with a face so crowded with scales and dials that it seems to reflect the dizzying array of controls in a cockpit.

There's a chronograph with its subdials as well as a tachymeter and even a slide rule bezel which can be used for a number of different calculations. Unlike many other watches on this list, it wasn't made for the military and was rather developed for the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association in the 1950s.

Omega Speedmaster

omega speedmaster watch

Produced By: Omega
Year Introduced: 1957

Surely astronauts qualify as pilots, right? In that sense, the Omega Speedmaster might be the most famous pilot's watch of them all — despite having been conceived as a racing chronograph, as its name indicates. If you don't already know about the Moonwatch, go read its story right now.

It's a tale that's been told a zillion times, but suffice it to say that the Omega Speedmaster secured its place in history having been selected by NASA for its space missions and, most notably, having accompanied the first humans to the Moon. The variations in this collection are vast, but you can still get a watch nearly identical to those worn by the astronauts.

Rolex GMT Master

rolex gmt master watch

Produced By: Rolex
Year Introduced: 1954

Many of the most iconic pilot's watches had very critical uses like navigation, but Rolex had another need of pilots in mind when it introduced its GMT watch in 1954: pilot's traveling between time zones needed to simultaneously keep track of their home time and that of their current destination.

Rolex offered a 24-hour hand that could be used in conjunction with a rotating 24-hour bezel. The most distinctive trait is the bicolored bezel which is intended to offer an easy visual representation of day and nighttime hours.

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