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What Are Flieger Watches, and Which Should I Buy?

What started as a batch of 1,200 watches made in 1941 has since become one of the most iconic designs in history.

pilot watch original friedrichshafen erbstÜck

Made for the German Luftwaffe, the Beobachtungs-Uhren (B-Uhren), or "Flieger" watch (“pilot” auf Deutsch), were intended only as flight tools. The paramount focus of the Flieger was legibility; robustness and accuracy were factors as well, but if the navigator or pilot couldn’t quickly tell the time, the watch was of no use.

The Flieger was primarily made for the navigator (the “Beobachter”), and was not actually issued to keep, but as flight equipment with the expectation that the watch would be returned post-mission. It was made in two types, A and B, which had similar aesthetics: a 55-millimeter case diameter, a matte black dial with luminous markers and hands, a pocket watch movement, the trademark triangle 12:00 marker, and a long leather strap with enough material to be worn around the outside of pilot’s jacket. The difference between the two was the dial layout: the Type A being very simple, with more of a traditional clock layout, and the Type B being more technical.

iwc b urhen watch phillips
An example of a Type A flieger made by IWC around 1940, measuring 55mm wide.

The Type B displays the standard minute track, but instead of an hour indicator for every 5 minutes, there’s a numeric minute indicator that lines up perfectly with the length of the minute hand. On the inner part of the dial, an additional ring lines up with the hour hand and displays markers for each of the 12 hours. At a glance, it’s an incredibly easy dial to read.

The original Flieger manufacturers — IWC, A. Lange & Söhne, Stowa, Laco, and Wempe — remain household names. But luckily for watch nerds, a fat wallet or a giant’s wrist isn’t necessary to get the look and feel of a Flieger. With the exception of Lange, each brand still produces varying degrees of Fliegers, from traditional to modern, high-end to affordable. Other great brands also make Flieger-inspired timepieces today, some faithful reproductions and some that take creative license.

Among modern watches, Fliegers represent a relatively focused subset of the broader category of pilot's watches but are popular and numerous enough to more or less constitute a genre of their own. Here are a few of our favorites from both the classic Deutsche set and some newer brands.

Stowa Flieger

For the Traditionalist: It’s hard to say what Stowa’s most popular model is, but their Flieger is easily in the running. The brand has a strong connection to the original B-Uhren navigator watches and a history of outstanding quality to back it up.

The worst part about Stowa’s Flieger is actually deciding which one you want. Right now, they have 14 versions of what they call the "Flieger Classic," including Type A and Type B Fliegers, sterile dials, a bronze-cased version, a chronograph, and more. We say go with the Type B 40mm, as it’s arguably the nicest modern interpretation when considering fit and finish versus cost.


Laco Pilot Watch Original Kempten Erbstück

For the Purist: Right alongside Stowa, Laco was one of the several German companies that made the original B-uhr watches, and the brand more or less specializes in watches of this type today. Laco offers several collections that are each a different take on the Flieger — you might want to try the Flieger Pro online configurator to get the exact Flieger you're after.

However, the Pilot Watch Original collection is meant to be the most faithful, and within that collection is a type of watch that stands out even in the wider industry: The range of watches with "Erbstück" (meaning "heirloom") in the name feature artificially aged elements from a case that looks like it's seen combat with dings and scrapes to a dial that looks like it's 80 years old. We like the 39mm Kempten version for easy wearing, but perhaps the most authentic would be the 55mm Replika model — if you you'v got the wrists to rock it (there are also 42mm and 45mm sizes available).


Archimede Pilot

For the Traditionalist, with a Twist: Having only been around since 2003, Archimede may seem like a young watchmaker. However, with the support of 90-year-old company, Ickler, they’ve got some serious German horological cred behind them.

Like Stowa, Archimede has a handful of watch families, both modern and traditional, of which the Pilot is one of the most successful. Despite Archimede’s excellent standard Type A and Type B Fliegers, the bronze-cased Type A is hard to pass up. Bronze may not be a traditional watchmaking material, but it’s hardly outlandish and looks just about perfect when used well. We like the version that's 39mm wide and 9.9 millimeters thick, making this ETA 2824-powered Flieger is an unbelievable value at just about a grand.


Orient Flight

For the Anti-Traditionalist On a Budget: In Japan, if Seiko is considered Coca-Cola, Orient would surely be Pepsi. Except, in this example, Coke would own Pepsi. But Orient isn’t just one of Seiko’s many subsidiaries: they’re one of the world’s largest mechanical watch producers.

Among their wide range of watches, the Orient RA-AC0H03B10A (previously known more elegantly as the Flight) stands out as a solid homage to the Type B Flieger. It’s available in several color variants, including black, and the blue version is even available on a bracelet for just few bucks more. Good luck finding a lower priced well-made Flieger with an in-house movement.


IWC Big Pilot Perpetual Calendar Top Gun

For the Pilot Who Flies His Own Gulfstream: If there’s one thing IWC consistently does right, it’s pilot’s watches. (No surprise there either, since they were one of the original Flieger producers.) A quick browse of IWC’s pilot series reveals a silly amount of variations. They’ve got chronographs, world timers, slow-beat hand-winders, ceramic cases, gold cases — you get the point. But there’s one that really sticks out, and it’s an exercise in ridiculousness in the most awesome way.

The Big Pilot's Watch Perpetual Calendar Top Gun "Mojave Desert," aside from being classified as a pilot’s watch, is a near opposite of the original Flieger in terms of functionality. Where the Flieger prided itself on basic timekeeping abilities, the Big Pilot Perpetual Calendar packs one of the most horologically complicated movements into its 46.5mm ceramic case. We don’t recommend letting the seven-day power reserve run down, because setting this bad boy practically requires a WOSTEP certification.


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