The Short List
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, presumably, 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.
IWC’s Mark line is a benchmark in military watches. The famous IWC Mark XI was made in 1948 for the British Ministry of Defense and was worn by British pilots, and the Mark XVIII feels descended directly from it. The Mark XVIII offers that history and character, an eminently practical and satisfying watch for everyday wear, an in-house automatic movement as well as IWC's stellar build quality.
Movement: Sellita SW300-1 automatic
Notable Feature: Soft-iron inner case for anti-magnetism
With a fascinating history and distinctive look, the Breitling Navitimer is one of the most iconic pilot watches ever — scratch that: it's one of the most iconic watches of any kind. First produced in 1954 to offer pilots a range of functionality via its slide rule bezel and chronograph, the Navitimer features a captivatingly busy dial like little else available (apart from its imitators). This modern version is powered by the brand's excellent in-house B01 movement and features a bold-wearing case measuring 43mm.
Movement: Breitling B01 automatic
Notable Functions: Chronograph, slide rule bezel
Stowa makes a great example of the classic Flieger style pilot watch in the same tradition as watches like the IWC Mark XI, and it's got real history doing so. The Verus 40, however, is something a little different: that utilitarian military design has been ever so slightly tweaked to offer a more modern and refined product. The result still feels very much like a pilot's watch, but makes a lot more sense for daily wear. It also helps that the watch offers all this for well under $1,000, complete with premium features such as sapphire crystal and a Swiss automatic movement.
Movement: Sellita SW200-1
Notable Functions: Date
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 mechanical chronograph featuring a column wheel, to boot.
Movement: Seagull ST19 hand-winding
Notable Functions: Chronograph
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
Since 2015, the British-based brand Farer has combined sharp mid-century looks with unexpected pops of color. Its new Pilot Automatic watch is a funky take on the popular style of military watch referred to as B-Uhr (Beobachtungs-Uhren, or Flieger) based on those used by the German air force in WWII (yes, that German air force). While many brands offer their own version of the B-Uhr, Farer's interpretation offers something that feels contemporary and fun while retaining a clear connection to the traditional design. And it helps that the price is right, too.
Movement: SW200-1 automatic
Notable Functions: Faraday cage for anti-magnetism
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
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
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 Heritage Automatic is a good place to start.
Movement: Sellita SW200-1 automatic
Notable Functions: Date
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
Fortis is a Swiss brand largely focused on tool watches, so it’s no surprise to find a whole range for pilots. The Flieger series exists alongside more traditional aviation watches, but the new F-39 has a distinctly fresh and modern feel while remaining immediately recognizable as a pilot watch and connected to historical models. The F-39 is a time-only watch with a 39mm case, but the brand also released watches in the same collection offering other features and sizes including a very cool chronograph.
Movement: Sellita SW 200-1 automatic
Notable Functions: Bi-directional 12-hour 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 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
Longines has some of the most notable aviation heritage of any watchmaker. They outfitted pioneers like Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, after all, so nothing could have seemed more natural than when the brand finally launched a dedicated pilot watch collection in 2020. The new Longines Spirit collection offers a luxe-feeling modern pilot watch with a few dial variations and a couple case sizes for automatics (as well as a chronograph).
Diameter: 40mm or 42mm
Movement: ETA A31.L11 automatic
Notable Functions: Date
Hanhart made one of the most legendary pilot's chronograph watches back in the 1950s, and it's known simply as the 417 ES. For many people, this watch's cool factor is amplified by having been worn by actor and "King of Cool" Steve McQueen. Toward the end of 2020, the brand brought it back (they'd be crazy not to), and they kept it close to the original with a thin (for a chronograph) case courtesy of a manually wound movement and offered on a bund-style watch strap just as worn by pilots — and Mr. Steve McQueen.
Movement: Sellita SW 510 M
Notable Functions: Chronograph
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
The 158 Bundeswehr is based on 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
The Airain Type 20 Re-Edition is yet another modern remake of a vintage pilot’s watch, but newly resurrected brand seems to have done a solid job and kept it faithful to the original. It looks great largely because the original watch was so cool, but of course the Re-Edition is upgraded with modern goodies like a manually wound, La Joux-Perret flyback chronograph movement. For a genuine retro feel, however, Airain used Hesalite crystal rather than the more modern choice of sapphire.
Notable Functions: Flyback chronograph, rotating 12-hour bezel
Bell & Ross is famous for its square watches that mimic an aircraft’s dashboard instruments. The BR 03-92 Nightlum takes that concept a step further by applying the look of a glowing instrument panel at night to its dial with ample luminescent paint. Against a black dial and housed in an all-black ceramic case, the hands and indices stand out even more and result in strong legibility and a very tactical look, indeed.
Movement: Sellita SW300-1
Notable Functions: Ceramic case, green-tinted sapphire crystal
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
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), 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