Now, what about your watch. What does it look like? It’s highly legible. It can survive drastic changes in temperature and pressure, and is protected from magnetic fields. If you’re a fighter pilot, you need to be able to read it in between strafing runs and shouting at obscenities at Tom Cruise. A globe-trotting commercial pilot might want a GMT hand showing a second time zone; a solo explorer flying an ultralight might want a GPS function in the watch.
You are, ostensibly, only an imaginary pilot. But who cares? The best pilots watches mix and match all sorts of cool features; what was once the tool watch of choice for fighter jocks has a rich history and a wildly divergent set of uses. Pilots watches are all different — which means you have lots of chances to find just the right one. Here are our favorites.
Seagull 1963 Chronograph
The Tianjin WuYi watch factory was one of the Chinese government’s most important watch factories during the Industrial Revolution. In 1963, it produced the first Chinese chronograph, the ST3. The factory privatized during an entirely different revolution — the quartz one — and today makes a number of movements, including tourbillons. It also makes the 1963 Chronograph, an homage to the ST3, and an affordable chronograph, to boot.
Movement: Seagull ST19 hand-winding
Notable Functions: Chronograph
Yema Superman French Air Force Edition
French brand Yema’s Superman may be a diver, but it was initially produced for the French Air Force, and so are these modern versions, which are meant for the military branch’s rescue divers and fighter pilots. With its rotating bezel and distinctive locking mechanism, the Superman’s strong legibility and rugged build are as suitable for aviation as its 200m water resistance is for diving. It looks great with its steel bezel and bracelet, and is available in quartz, automatic, 39mm, 41mm and PVD versions.
Diameter: 39mm or 41mm
Movement: Ronda 515 (quartz); Yema MBP1000 (automatic)
Notable Functions: Rotating bezel; bezel-locking mechanism
Price: $499+ (quartz); $999+ (automatic)
The Cruxible is MK II’s attempt to honor vintage American watch design: The watch is an homage to the A-11, a navigation watch worn mostly by soldiers in the American military. It features has large numerals for legibility, a big crown, an affordable price, and a simple, understated design that’s the hallmark of the brand. And you can get one without the years-long wait that comes with Yao’s “benchcrafted” designs.
Movement: SII NE15 automatic
Notable Functions: Date (optional)
Hamilton Khaki Pilot Pioneer Mechanical
Hamilton released its Khaki Pilot Pioneer Mechanical in 2019 as a modern interpretation of a watch it made for RAF pilots in 1973 commonly called the W10. The contemporary version is executed nicely, staying very close to the original design, but with some interesting details like a textured dial that gives it a slightly more refined feel and strong legibility. Though measuring only 33mm wide, we can attest that it’s full of character and wears great on its NATO strap.
Movement: Handwound Hamilton H-50
Notable Functions: 80-hour power reserve
Archimede Pilot 39 Bronze
Archimede makes several pilot’s watches with more aeronautically themed complications — the 42 GMT and Pilot Chronograph, for instance — than this simple three-hander. Yet, though the Pilot 39 Bronze has been around for several years, its simple dial design and straightforward bronze case are both timeless and perfectly of our time. That it costs under $1,000 with a workhorse ETA 2824-2 automatic movement makes it a reasonable value for a pilot’s watch.
Movement: ETA 2824
Notable Functions: Bronze case
“Sleek” is not ordinarily the realm of the pilot’s watch. Indeed, Damasko, a German brand that’s become a do-it-all darkhorse in a few short decades, tends to make military-inspired watches bigger than 40mm in diameter. The DS30, at just 39mm and under 10mm thick, breaks that streak. Its simple black-and-white dial round out a tight, worthy package. And as we recently pointed out, it’s a great unisex watch.
Movement: ETA 2824-2
Notable Functions: Shockproof; antimagnetic
Alpina Startimer Pilot Automatic
Alpina has the mid-range pilot’s watch absolutely nailed down. Its dial finishing and style is legible and classic; its hands, unique and elegant; the crown, perfectly big. Any first-time pilot’s watch buyer should check out the brand’s entire line to consider everything from its chronographs to its affordable throwbacks. But the Startimer Pilot Automatic is a bread-and-butter watch, at the right price.
Notable Functions: Date
Ollech & Wajs P-104
Ollech & Wajs made a strong comeback when it returned from obscurity with its P-104 pilot watch. With buckets of character and a genuine tool-watch feel, the P-104 also has a unique look that stands out on the wrist. Simple, three-hand time-telling is complemented by a rotating bezel with a slide rule scale that’s useful for all kinds of calculations — the kinds that will be useful to pilots and civilians alike. And the premium for the beads-of-rice bracelet options is well worth it.
Movement: ETA 2824-2 automatic
Notable Functions: Bi-directional, rotating slide rule bezel
Farer Automatic GMT
Since 2015, the British-based brand Farer has combined sharp mid-century looks with funky pops of color. Its Automatic GMT was the brand’s first use of an automatic movement. Farer did it using the ETA 2893-2, at a notably affordable cost with some slightly oddball colorways. It doesn’t have a rotating bezel like several other microbrand GMTs on this list, but this lends it a sleek profile.
Movement: ETA 2893-2
Notable Functions: GMT
Monta, based out of St. Louis, Missouri, has scored a number of hit watches over the past years by combining indie prices with big-brand finishing and Swiss movements. The Skyquest combines a dive watch’s bulk with a Sellita GMT movement and rotating bezel. “Monta is filling a niche here in the GMT market,” we wrote in our hands-on review, “and they’re doing it with an attention to detail that typically costs much, much more.”
Movement: Sellita SW330 automatic
Notable Functions: GMT hand; rotating bezel
Seiko’s innovation and pragmatic values are expressed in many different forms — and not only in its popular automatic dive watches. Take, for instance, the modern Astron collection: Its GPS function allows for accurate timekeeping no matter where you are. It calculates your position, and, when you cross a time zone boundary, adjusts the watch’s time for you, anywhere in the world.
Movement: Seiko 5X53 solar
Notable Functions: GPS timekeeping and time zone adjustment; world time; dual time; perpetual calendar
Oris Big Crown Bronze Pointer Date
Oris is regarded as a brand that punches above its price range, and the Big Crown Pointer Date makes one of the best cases for that reputation yet. Released in 2019 and based on the brand’s classic pilot’s watches, this version maintains a vintage take on the Big Crown line, with a coin-edged bezel and a fourth hand that points to the date around the edge of the dial. With unique combination of bronze case and brown dial, it’s a damn well-executed watch. It’s reasonably priced as well, though a bronze case commands a premium over steel versions.
Movement: Oris Calibre 754 (Sellita SW 200-1)
Notable Functions: Pointer date
Junghans Meister Pilot Chronoscope
Junghans was making clocks for planes all the way back in the 1930s and wristwatches for the West German military in the 1950s. Those ‘50s chronos looked a lot like the Meister Pilot Chronoscope. The watch’s surprisingly modern-looking angularity comes from the watch’s bezel, which is deeply scalloped. It also features a column-wheel chronograph and a dial with two sub-dials at 3 and 9 o’clock. In black and stainless steel, it’s mid-century and brutalist at the same time.
Notable Functions: Chronograph
Sinn 158 Bundeswehr
The 158 Bundeswehr is based on a watches that Sinn produced in the 1980s that were more or less refurbished and rebranded Heuer watches. And while the 158 Bundeswehr might not have the flyback function of the original, it’s got that no-nonsense, bi-compax look of iconic midcentury pilot’s chronographs, and sporty red highlights to boot. Sinn is beloved among watch nerds because it produces quality and toughness at an attainable price, though this one is limited to 500 examples.
Movement: Sellita SW 510
Notable Functions: Chronograph; rotating bezel
Bell & Ross BR 03-92 HUD
Bell & Ross is famous for its square watches that mimic an aircraft’s dashboard instruments. The BR 03-92 HUD takes that concept a step further by applying the look of a head-up display to its dial. Its green-tinted sapphire crystal includes luminescent markers on the corners to complete the HUD effect of information displayed on clear glass. With an otherwise all-black ceramic case, the result looks very tactical indeed.
Movement: Sellita SW300-1
Notable Functions: Ceramic case, green-tinted sapphire crystal
Omega Spacemaster Z-33
If you want to really capture the funkiness of the late sixties and early seventies in a sci-fi kind of way, the Omega Spacemaster Z-33 is your choice. Its tonneau-shaped case is brushed titanium, with an extra-thick titanium case back that supposedly helps its alarm sound extra-loud. Its dial features UTC time plus two additional time zones and a perpetual calendar. And yes, it’s quartz — because let’s be honest, the void of space doesn’t care about your nostalgia for mechanical gears.
Diameter: 43mm x 53mm
Movement: Omega 5666 (quartz)
Notable Functions: UTC + 2 time zones; alarm; perpetual calendar
IWC Chronograph Spitfire
IWC’s Mark line is a benchmark in military watches — the Mark XI was made in 1948 for the British Ministry of Defense and was worn by British pilots. Those who want to stick with the historic lineage of the brand should check out the Mark XVIII; the brand’s Spitfire line is a more modern twist. Our money’s on the Chronograph, which was released at SIHH in 2019 and features a triple-register layout and a bronze case with a green dial.
Movement: IWC 69380 column-wheel chronograph
Notable Functions: Chronograph
Bremont ALT1-C Griffon
Bremont is a British brand largely based on its founders’ love of aviation, so it’s no surprise to find a whole range of watches commemorating specific airplanes. The ALT1-C Griffon is dedicated to the PR Mk XIX Spitfire aircraft that was used for photo reconnaissance. It contains the Bremont’s version of the Valjoux 7750 automatic chronograph movement and comes in the brand’s signature Trip-Tick case measuring 43mm.
Movement: ETA 7750 automatic chronograph
Notable Functions: Chronograph, COSC chronometer certified
Breitling AVI Ref. 765 1953 Re-Edition
The AVI Ref. 765 1953 Re-Edition is yet another modern remake of a vintage pilot’s watch, but Breitling did a solid job and kept it pretty faithful to the original. It looks great largely because the original from 1953 is so cool, but of course the Re-Edition is upgraded with modern goodies like the brand’s manually wound, in-house B-09 chronograph movement. For a genuine retro feel, however, Breitling used Hesalite crystal rather than the more modern choice of sapphire.
Movement: Breitling in-house B-09 manual chronograph
Notable Functions: Chronograph, rotating 12-hour bezel
Rolex GMT Master II
As Rolex lore has it, sometime in the 1950s, PanAmerican airlines requested a watch for their pilots that had would allow them to track both GMT and local time. The result was the Rolex GMT Master, with a half-blue, half-red bezel. Though this classic “Pepsi” configuration is perhaps most well-known, at Baselworld 2019 Rolex brought back the “Batman” bezel (black and blue), this time on a Jubilee bracelet, giving the GMT-lover even more choice. It’s an icon of the air, with a legend that’s far outlived its vintage airline roots.
Movement: Rolex Caliber 3285
Notable Functions: GMT hand