5 Questions to Ask Before You Buy a Pilot’s Watch

Flieger, time-only, chronograph, digital…there are more types of pilot’s watches than there are pilots! Use this guide to help you buy the right one.

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Editor’s Note: So you’re ready to make a watch purchase? Not so fast. Before committing, it’s worth thinking carefully about your needs to make sure you’re truly buying the right timepiece for you. Our series Five Questions aims to help you do just that.

Aviation developed alongside the wristwatch itself, and the watches associated with flying can evoke a sense of daring and a kick of adrenaline like few others. However, as pilots’ needs changed over the years and watchmakers adapted, a wide range of pilot watches have emerged. There are scores of options, and a few important points you’ll want to consider before buying a pilot’s watch.

These practical timekeepers make a good sport watch alternative to the ever-popular dive watch as they’re overbuilt and handsome, to boot. But what exactly makes a pilot watch a pilot watch? Historically, they were first defined by their need to be very accurate, as well as easy to read and operate — leading to bold dial designs and large crowns. Later watches added features and complications to help with important calculations. The result is myriad designs and variations within the genre, which can lead to some analysis paralysis when trying to make a purchasing decision.

Below are five questions that’ll help you choose the type of pilot’s watch that speaks to your inner aviator.

Do you actually fly planes?

If so, you already know that you don’t actually need a pilot’s watch. In the past, watches were an important tool for pilots, but what with the advent of digital instruments and computing, those times are gone. That doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t enjoy a capable watch with roots in aviation like so many others do — and, as a pilot, it could very well enhance your appreciation of both the watch and the sophistication of modern aircraft. And if you don’t fly planes but are a fan of aviation (or simply like the look) and still want to wear a pilot’s watch, there’s no reason not to indulge.

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Rolex GMT Master II “Batman”

What features or functionality are you looking for?

It’s established that you don’t need a watch to fly a plane anymore, so this is a question of your individual and daily needs. But some of the features commonly associated with pilot’s watches can be useful and desirable for watch-wearers in general. For example, a slide rule bezel can be used to make a range of handy calculations, and a chronograph can be used to time all kinds of activities.

The GMT complication and 24-hour bezel are both handy complications, too: originally intended for commercial pilots, these are especially useful for modern travelers or those with contacts in other time zones. Each of these features are handy and worth considering in a pilot’s watch — it’s merely a bonus that they have some cool history and tend to add to an interesting look.

Is a mechanical movement important?

This question applies to watches of all kinds. Mechanical movements are more expensive and less accurate than their quartz couterparts, but they add a sense of “specialness” to watches, and this might be all the more important to buyers interested in pilot’s watches specifically for their history and tradition. Be aware that many pilot watches are chronographs, and that can mean significantly higher prices when they’re mechanical.

Quartz watches can offer inexpensive options in classic pilot’s watch styles, but they can also incorporate all kinds of features and digital tech that might be useful for today’s pilots. There are those that use GPS and radio signals to automatically adjust to changes of time zones, and some are specifically designed to record flight times and other important data.

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Breitling Navitimer 1959 Re-Edition

What kind of pilot’s watch do you want?

Pilot’s watches represent a genre with wide variations in type, model, etc, but if you’ve got a certain image in your mind of what a pilot’s watch should look like, that’s a good start. Knowing the different types of pilot’s watch available will help you better explore your options, since there are myriad interpretations of each by different brands.

There are those as simple and classic as the W10 and the flieger or as complicated as flyback chronographs. Then, there are unsentimental ones which feel as technical and serious as modern fighter planes or commercial aircraft. You can even find watches that embrace the fact that pilots don’t need these watches, and instead approach aviation as a design theme — some might have an airplane-shaped shaped seconds hand, a turbine-shaped rotor, or incorporate material from a historic aircraft in their construction.

Is heritage important to you?

History is a big part of pilot’s watches’ appeal, especially that of the popular styles rooted in 20th-century military applications. While there are timepieces that offer solid interpretations of these classic designs, there are also those made by the same brands that actually designed the originals. You can still get IWC’s pilot’s watches watches, Breguet’s Type 21, Breitling’s chronographs of all kinds, and so on. Re-releases of historic models are more popular than ever today, and can very often be had from brands which have been making them continuously for decades.

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