The real choices of aviators.
Posted by Time Flies on September 30,1999
Copyright, 1999, G. J. Buhyoff
Good day to all,
I don’t know what prompted my posting this viewpoint. It was likely several things. A little while back I and Grahame had a “go-round” about the “epitomy of an aviator’s watch”. Second, I have been amused for many years by watch companies playing on aviation history, imagery and romance, and pure marketing ploy. Third, there are repeated discussions here and on some of the sub-forums about “aviator’s” watches. Fourth, I have collected vintage “aviation” pieces for over 30 years. And, finally, I am a pilot — former military and currently a private pilot. SO, I can introspect about my own experiences, the experiences of the myriad of pilots I have associated with (or, in some cases, forced to associate with!) as well as bring my own insights about what little I know about the history of watches and their use by pilots — both military and general aviation.
First, let me categorize pilot’s watches into several categories.
These are watches that were designed to be issued to pilots and aircrew. They are many. Of course, we are all familiar with the Mark series made by IWC, Omega, JLC and others. There are also the vast array of Hamiltons, Benrus, Longines and others which were also issued to aircrews, primarily from the second world war onward — through about the Vietnam conflict. I was issued one of these myself But, only because I asked for it. They were not issued as a standard procedure. Most of these watches are basic l 2/24hour military timekeepers. The dials are basic and they were not chronographs. In fact, many navigators carried separate stopwatches for those navigational duties. The primary purpose for many of these watches was to provide aircrews with something to determine time since many people either did not own a watch or, if they did, it was not up to a standard timekeeping specification. Additionally, some of the designs, like the British Mark series, were design specified — that is, they should perform within a certain accuracy or they should be able to be hacked. In fact, hacking ability, during the time period of WW 11 was actually something pretty special. Some of you may note that the Benrus watches issued then were called “Hacking watches”. This feature was pretty important for navigational and other planning activities. But, other than being issued to aircrew and being able to display time within a set accuracy, there is nothing particularly special about them in terms of meeting an aviator’s needs. Yes, the black face and easy readability were required by military personnel, but that feature really does not, in my mind, make an aviator’s watch. A chronographic feature is something that was a virtual necessity then and still is today if I am flying a plane with only basic instrumentation. Again, that is why stopwatches were carried by aircrews. Those issue watches were most often not enough other than to get the aircrews to the ramp on time.
Watches with some aviation heritage:
Of course there is a heck of a bunch of these including the current Blancpains, IWC’s, Breuget’s Breitlings, Longines and so on. These are watches that utilize some basic design elements in either the dial, movement or case that have some link back to watches made by these companies that were made for aviators. In most cases, these watches are about as strongly linked to aviation as a hot dog is to the cow from which it was made. These are “designer watches”. While they look like an aviation watch, many of them are not particularly suited for aviation use. The Mark XII with its delicate movement, small size and general lack of robustness and chronographic features would be an example. The Flieger Chrono by IWC would be more of a real aviation piece but, honestly, after having owned one, it is too small and difficult to read the subdials. Nice watch. But, again, a designer piece in my mind. I am not being critical of IWC. They are one of my all time favorite companies. I own IWC’s. Breitlings on the whole are aimed at marketing “aviation romance”, particularly to those who would maybe like to be like a pilot. Unfortunately, their strongest link to aviation is historical. However, as you will see later, they currently manufacture some pieces that present some possible real choices for an aviator.
I could go on for a long time detailing examples in this category, but that would serve little purpose. I think I have described this group well enough, and a large group of manufacturers and watches it is!
Watches actually selected by aviators:
These are watches that pilot’s, navigators and aircrew actually purchased themselves (or had a hand in design) for use in performing aviation duties, including: getting the ramp on time (!); preflight planning; and, navigational chores. In fact, I call this group “watches with a real aviation heritage”. Issue watches were issue watches — they were not necessarily, and in most cases were not, what a pilot would really want. This is the group of watches I have refocused my collecting on -the watches with a real aviation heritage because pilots bought them since they provided design and function that was actually useful for the requirements, chores and duties of flying — either military or general aviation. In most cases, each of these watches exemplified the latest timekeeping technology of the time. That is, mechanical chronographs was the best technology of the time period since you did not have to have or use a separate stopwatch.
Given this set of categories, I have ended up with a set of basic assumptions about “watches with a real aviation heritage”. I f you subscribe to my assumptions and observations, then I list below a group of watches that were the real choices of aviators and also list a group that might well be the aviation collectibles of the future. Of course, there is the odd watch here and there from a variety of manufacturers that “do the same things”, or meet the needs of an aviator. And, many aviators owned them. But, the list below are the watches I vote as being “real aviator’s watches” These are watches, especially the Breitling’s, Omega’s and Rolex, that were owned by many, many aviators with whom I associated or flew with. These were the “common” extra-issue watches used. I owned(own) them myself and they were purchased to accomplish flying duties despite not having enough money at the time to really afford them!
- Longines Lindberg Hour Angle
- Longines Weems
- Breitling Navitimer
- Breitling Cosmonaute
- Omega Speedmaster Professional
- Omega Flightmaster
- Rolex GMT
- Accutrons — the 24 hour versions
- Glycine Airman
I might note that three of the watches above in their current manufacture format are about as true to the original as can be despite some obvious updating of dials and some minor movement differences (we can nitpick this in terms of movements but I am basing my opinion on the use of certain basic movement used in at least one series manufactured under the model name by each of the manufacturers within that vintage time period). They are: Omega Speedmaster Professional (essentially the same watch), Breitling Cosmonaute (essentially the same watch as the 1963 version); and, the Rolex GMT (updated to GMT 11– but you can still get the GMT). So, you can still purchase today a watch that aviators really did wear and use for flying duties.
Current aviation watches
Of course, the best technology for time keeping for aviators is not handled by mechanical watches. Modern avionics has eliminated the requirement to even wear a watch. But, like all good aviators, I like redundancy — as many backups as I can pack into that airframe without adding significant weight or altering the weight and balance computations too much! So, modern wristpieces that I see as being really good choices for aviators would be: (I have selected these for their specifications and functions and certainly does not represent the complete set of possibilities)
- Breitling B-l
- Breitling Aerospace
- Breitling Emergency (if legal in the U.S. — have your fun if elsewhere)
- Omega X-33
- Omega Seamaster 120 Multifunction
- Casio’s by the dozen
- Citizen’s by the gross
- A few thousand Seiko’s and, gosh knows what else!
So, what are my conclusions? First, watches issued to aviators and the basic designs of most of those issued watches were not really, in many, if not most cases, watches designed just for aviation. The anti-magnetic and accuracy specifications were for a variety of military applications and not just aviation. And, in tact, these watches more often than not did not provide aviators with the functions they really needed. Second, many, many aviators purchased their own time pieces based upon their know needs and the watches I listed above were not anything like the ones issued. Finally, if you really are interested in getting a modern timepiece that really does a great job in the cockpit as a redundancy instrument look into the ones I have noted just above this paragraph and then you will “look like an aviator”! If ya wanna look like a pilot, go big, go digital/analog combination and go with modern technology such as quartz. If you like real aviation vintage, I might suggest looking into the watches selected by pilots such as the ones I also noted above.
I hope this might be fun to read. It was fun to write. You can argue with me until you are blue in the face. But, this is what I have observed over years of collecting and years of military and civilian flying. I invite additions to my real choices of aviator’s category since I may have simply forgotten one or I need to know of an oversight. If it is an oversight, many thanks, and please tell me where I can act one!
The author’s comments in this review are his own opinions. The best available facts were used to compile this information at the time of writing.. I cannot be responsible for any inadvertent inaccuracies that may have occurred in the research and writing of this article.
The following comments were made by Forum members in response to the above article. The copyright notice covers only the above review and comments made by Time Flies.
Posted by MID:
Isn’t the Glycine Airman also available today as a new watch?
Posted by Mike Weinberg:
Are you kidding? By the new Glycine you can’t mean the big new 24-hour automatic, can you? It’s not only much easier to read but also far more accurate than the old Airman. I’ve also owned both, and my only regret was that the old Airman wasn’t bigger, more accurate, and easier to read (not to say more impressive, like the new monster).
Posted by Michiel:
If the topic is original pilot watches, the old airman is just that and the new one is not. My old airman runs more accurate than my new one by the way. It is smaller than the new one, and you have to get used to the 24 hr dial. Personally, I like the old one better. I guess you don’t. We’re both happy:)
Posted by Mike Weinberg:
Actually, I do have an old Airman automatic, and I like it better than you might imagine, but at the ripe old age of 50, 1 find it impossible to tell the time at a glance from the old Airman. The new one is a 12/24 hour watch, so I can get a fix on the time at night from the hand positions, which I couldn’t do with my old Airman.
As to accuracy, I’ve just had better luck with the new one, but that’s probably because I can read it better and thus wear it more often, making it more accurate by the constant tension.
The old Airman is a military classic–no doubt about it–en joy!
Posted by Michiel:
It is rather small, isn’t it. That’s why…l bought the KMU 48. You don’t need no glasses for that one. I enjoy the new Airman as well Mike, but I think the old one has a bit more character. Anyway, good to know that there are some Glycine fans amon,~ the TZ’ers. Seems the number is growing.
Posted by JohnCa:
When I started working in flight testing of military aircraft last month, I was quite curious about which watches I would find there. Here is
a list of what I saw:
Tutima BW Chrono (Issued to the german pilots),
Omega Speedmaster, Seamaster, Constellation,
A few Sinns, chrono and not,
Couple of Russian Chronos,
Breitling Navitimer, Intruder, Chronomat,
The one or other Rolex
Baume & Mercier Chrono
And the one you forgot (and the one on my own wrist): The Heuer BW Chrono (Timeless design, GREAT movement, has really been
issued to pilots), though I guess it is more of a “national” watch.
Posted by Time Flies:
I can think of a gazillion different watches that I have worn as a pilot and that I have seen on other pilots. My classifications are fairly clear. As far as my real category I am speaking of watches that I have seen many, many times on the wrists of aviators. These are watches consistently selected, either in past times or current. I am not trying to say that Tutima’s, Russian watches, dress watches, no watches, sundials or otherwise have not been used nor are used nor will be used by pilots. Type XX’s were issued to pilot’s and are chronographs. I am speaking about watches that pilot’s self-select, have been selected as a watch of choice many, many times and watches that are truly classic, real pilot’s watches based upon preference and use. Heck, I can think of all sorts of examples of watches that are/were used by pilot’s including Santos, the German Air Force, air-show pilots, and crop-dusters. I am attempting to categorize
“types” of watches and, in a sense, genuine classic watches consistently worn by pilot’s by choice. My personal experience granted is limited — only from the SEA period. And, my historical classification stems from reading, collecting and learning over 30 years.
I am not saying I am correct — this is an opinion piece. But, so many of the “aviation” watches today are merely marketing hype or are over-inflated in their historical context. The market price of some of these vintage pieces reflects that. Additionally, some watches that are truly based in a strong aviation heritage (really used by pilots by choice) are not valued as highly (e.g. the Omega Flightmaster).
So, I am not saying the IWC UTC is not a good pilot’s watch, or the Tutima whatever, or if you are willing to pay a premium to look good in the cockpit that the BP whatever is not a great “pilot’s watch”. These simply are not classic in the same sense as the others I listed.
By the way, the Glycine Airman is still made but has been changed so much in terms of the movement that I did not include with the other three that I listed.
Anyway, this is fun. I hoped this piece would draw some argument. I Icy, this is a forum not just a question and answer space.
I’m in the pattern and looking for conflicting traffic.
Posted by Michiel:
What it comes down to is that we buy an illusion. We think we buy an aviators watch but in tact we don’t. Most pilots I’ve seen at numerous airshows wear quartz digital watches. Only a few wear what we consider pilot watches. Still I like to believe I wear a pilots watch. The marketing works for me, although I know I’m being fooled. The watch that a pilot wears is a “pilots watch”. They are as varied as any other group of people you can think of
Thanks Greg for a great piece of reading.
Posted by MF:
I really appreciate the thought behind your post. It’s great when a post can be as intellectually provocative as yours.
I would like to think through, however, the “socio-economics” underlying your categories. I’m not sure whether “issued watches” vs. those that “pilots actually buy” tells the full story. Due to custom, usage, economics, the qualifications of procurement officers, etc., the difference may exist as a category but at different historical times may not be a meaningful distinction.
It may be. It’s something I really need to think through. My compliments for looking at this from a new –and arguably important-perspective.
Posted by Time Flies:
Take a look at my response to Graiche above. I tried to answer both you and him in one post. I really enjoy the discussion. The Forum is really fun when we can do this sort of thing.
Posted by graiche:
…do you think a majority of your contemporary flying buddies would agree? For that matter, was watch selection ever a topic of conversation among your flying peers in your combat days?
Very thought provoking.
Great to see you posting–I was beginning to worry!
Posted by Time Flies:
The “time only” pieces were simply not good for much of anything except knowing the local time. In a pinch, we could use them for navigation and you could certainly compute GMT by adding or subtracting the correct number of hours after converting the 12 hour time to 24 hour time. But, a pilot wants to fly a plane not play mental computation games. There were so many other watches available that provided more — GMT, chronographic timing, bigger (very important for quick glance information retrieval), and even versions of whiz wheels (circular slide rules). So, our feeling was, hey, if I can do better why not? Of course, watches were also symbolic of what you did — fly planes. I will not deny this. There a heck of a lot of jokes about big, complicated watches and pilots. But, honestly, this was not the main motivation. Issued watches were generally small, gave only local time and, to be honest, were junk. The U.S. issued watches were not like the Mark series
— they may have been spec’ed, but man, if you were within 5 minutes a day you were doing well.
Michael makes some interesting points [above]. And, as typical of Michael, he thinks, considers and asks great questions. But, the purchased watch by military pilots was not socio-economically driven. We did not have the money to waste — for those of you who have existed on military pay you know. And, the vast majority of us came from humble backgrounds. We did not have stash somewhere. We opted to spend limited financial reserves on something that we thought would pay off — and, I do not wish to exaggerate — something that might even play into saving our butts. The issued watches were virtually useless as a flight planning and navigation tool. They did not do enough as I noted. So, we opted to get ourselves some good backup instruments. That is why you see GMT watches, chronographs and even watches with some version of E6B’s on them in my list. Pilots figured that the more information we could get, the better. Again, pilot’s think redundancy, redundancy,
No, it was not socio-economic. It was good planning. And, the general military, simple designs were just plain damn near useless to us. So, in my mind, these watches are not pilot’s watches. They are military design watches. The real pilot’s watches are those that pilots selected. It does not matter if all pilots selected them, but one heck of a lot of them used the ones I listed — especially the Omega Speedmaster Pro and Flightmaster, the Rolex GMT, and the Breitlings. They really were great flight watches. My thesis is this. If this is what pilots preferred as evidenced by a difficult purchase (expensive) and if one heck of a good number of pilots selected those watches, then those watches really are the epitomy of pilot’s watches. Simply because a watch was issued to pilots did not make it an aviators watch. Those watches were simply a batch spec’ed bunch of timepieces that the military used — usually for all branches.
I know I might be making a lot out of not too much. But, for some silly reason, it really grinds me to hear manufacturers and owners refer to their “pilot’s watches”. They may be similar to or a take-off on a military design (simple, black dial, fairly legible — many were so small that legibility can be argued) but they sure were not pilot’s watches. A pilot’s watch is a watch that pilots selected, by choice. And, those watches are big, fairly straight-forward dials, often had chronographic features, GMT, rotating bezels that could be used for timing and even circular slide rules. Granted the circular slide rule thing is not something you would use in the cockpit when you had a large and complete whiz wheel with you. But, they were used for quick ground computations and some elementary estimates in pre-flight planning by many. Also, if you somehow left your whiz wheel in OPS or it dropped out of your flight bag or got misplaced, then a bezel
with a circular slide rule was better than nothing at all! Heck, I wear my Cosmonaute a lot and actually use the whiz wheel on it when I am at the office and dreaming up some cross country flights. I can get some quick time and fuel burn estimates from it. Would I use it by choice. No. But, it sure better than pencil and paper.
Thus, the real pilot’s watches, in my mind and experience, are those that I listed for the reasons stated here and in my original post. In tact, take a look at some of the Luftwaffe watches of WW 11. They were big and often offered more than the little simple stuff issued to the Allied forces. Those were pilot’s watches since they offered at least something more than local time that you had to squint to see in a dim cockpit or when your mind is trying to race faster than the plane is flying.
As trite as all this may seem to some, I simply wish people would tie their romantic notions of a pilots watch to a design that is a “military watch design”. They are different animals. The manufacturers play on the aviation thing to such a large degree. I guess flying has some romantic notion tied to it. For those of you who really are pilots you know that flying is fun, a whole lot of fun, it is challenging sometime, but heck, it ain’t romantic. It is romantic to those who have never flown, I guess. It must be. So, the manufacturers really hit the aviation ties and heritage. And, maybe, some people want to look like pilots by wearing a watch of some type. Take the dollars you spent for that expensive “pilot” watch and go take flying lessons. And, then you learn what the real requirements are for wrist timing devices — nothing at all or, as a backup, go get a great big, analog/digital, quartz device that gives GMT, chronographic capability, a
second time zone, a really loud alarm, super shock proofing for banging around during preflight and in the cockpit, and a back light for night flying. Or, if you prefer a mechanical, get something big with a chronograph and GMT time.
A pilot’s watch is not a simple, black dialed, time only watch. Yep, some pilot’s used them, some still do, but they were not the preferred timing devices that I saw in the military nor in my earlier civilian GA days before all the great avionics came on board like GPS.
Further, what I am relating is that the real pilots watches are not necessarily the Mark Xl’s and so on, but actually is quite a list of timepieces made by a variety of manufacturers — Glycine to Omega to Rolex to Breitling and so on. Those are the watches, as I said before, that have a genuine aviation heritage. They really were flight watches that served many, many pilots well and by their choice.
I simply hate the advertising of some manufacturers regarding aviation heritage. It is often such baloney. And, the vintage market is driven to some degree by this aviation association for certain pieces. I owned three Mark Xl’s that I bought in pubs from owners who had a drawer full of watches used to help pay off tabs. They were not that special. I got them for about 20 pounds apiece. Most pilots did not regard those issued pieces to be that important to them. And, it was simple enough to say you lost it or it was stolen. Pilots more often than not used something that related more than the local time.
Finally, I get a real charge out of the advertising about NATO issue watches, German Air Force watches and so on. Heck, I bet if you checked the wrist of the people they are supposedly using these things, you would find big quartz timepieces. That is why I listed “current” watches that are likely to be real aviator choices — the X-33, B I, the Casio’s and so on. They meet the demands of pilots. That is why an X-33 graces my wrist when I fly. And, I always have my Speedy Pro in my flight bag as a back-up and also since it is my “good luck” timepiece (the one with all the engravings on the back). That watch got me home a few times. Now, those two are pilot’s watches!
Thanks for hearing me out.
Posted by graiche:
Yow, Greg, this is amazing stuff! You are indeed the soul of TZ.
As I type this I’m wearing an IWC MkXII, and my only flight experience is as a ticket-toting passenger. (Well, there was that one time that the ventilators failed in the organic chemistry lab, but that’s another story.) Now “romance” is about the last thing that should come to mind to the average 757 passenger in 1 7B–when I fly, my biggest concern about my watch is cursing the fact that I need to change time zones. For those of us who will never sit up front, I wonder if the association of timepieces with flying is as much the association with mechanical doodads in general? As I think about it, the other association that I form is with racing cars. (I also think of Rolex and yachting, but that campaign seems obviously class-driven versus an appeal to the baser mechanical interest.)
During my college years I remember our discussions about calculators. 20 (!) years ago, the price of calculators had fallen substantially from just a few years earlier. The two dominant “scientific” calculator brands were Texas Instruments and HP. (I also still have my WORKING Bowmar Brain!) Loaded, highly programmable Tl calculators were typically 1/3 to 1/2 the price of far-more-modestly-featured HPs. Most of my friends and I were scraping by in college (I washed dishes during breaks and held two work-study jobs, a typical situation) so the expenditure of $100ish was a serious matter. I originally started out with a loaded Tl. As I got to know the older chem and physics majors, though, I saw they mostly used fairly simple HPs. Why? Because the fairly minimal HPs had the essential functions, no more, and they easily withstood the very common occurrence of being knocked off a lab bench. (A Tl will take that once or twice.) The calculator I use today (HP15) is the one I bought
during my first year of grad school ( 1983), and if I had to do it again the only difference would be that I might consider the simpler version (HP14, or maybe even 12-just as long as it does one-button reciprocals!) because they do what I need done. I not-infrequently encounter other colleagues using the same calculator. Unfortunately, I don’t think they’ve made them in 10 years. If I found NIB ones today I’d buy two. (I get the biggest kick out of graphing calculators–doesn’t anyone visualize functions anymore?) Note to JPI. and LMA guys–my calculator also does English->metric conversions…
Long-winded, but my point is that I understand your sentiment. When the tool is important, less is more as long as it’s efficient.
Posted by MF:
Just two hasty thoughts, not really disagreeing as they might sound-
When you say “But, the purchased watch by military pilots was not socio-economically driven. We did not have the money to waste — for those of you who have existed on military pay you know. And, the vast majority of us came from humble backgrounds. We did not have stash somewhere.” you might be right. But arguably one could claim that all purchases of economic goods are ‘economically’ driven. That is, perhaps for moral values all “choices” are inherently economic. And no one can escape his or her “social context” –culture, history, peer influences, etc.– underlying the psychology of that choice.
Second, what I can’t tell is whether your interpretation involves a view of history from the present, which may be different than the actual history at that time. For all we know, the procurement officers who “selected” the Marks in WWII were all pilots –the most decorated. Or perhaps they were bureaucrats stuck in a back room and totally clueless. I don’t know. But without that knowledge, it might have been that pilots in WWII thought those “dysfunctional” watches (by today’s standards) were state of the art, no matter who paid for them. Times change.
Posted by Time Flies:
Great comments, Michael. I agree with you. I think you got me here. It would be fun to continue to flesh out this idea. I spoke with Olecrewdog today and he is sympathetic to some of the points you make. My intention was to begin a discussion and we have done that. I only hope we can continue within the context of the Forum. But, all this stuff scrolls so quickly. I am sure we can revisit some of this as each of us thinks more about it. And, I am surely open to being redirected in my thinking. My basic categories are probably still valid. But, some of my underlying assumptions may need to be adjusted.
I sure appreciate your input and continued discussion.
Posted by MID:
I want to thank Mr. Flies for another thoughtful piece on the relation between time and flying. I remember our colloquy on the Omega X-33, and how much I learned from it. Flying appears to be an activity where one, if one is to do it safely, absorb huge amounts of data very quickly under some difficult circumstances. This is what cockpit displays try to do well and it is a situation where small differences in ergonomics and display design can make a huge difference. Also, given that aviation equipment is so sophisticated as to have made the wristwatch redundant, it is interesting that many pilots still put a lot of thought into what watch they choose. It is their back up system. At the same time, it appears that quartz watches are the preferred back up system probably because a quartz watch can measure and display a lot more information readably and quickly than even a mechanical chronograph. We have learned from pilots of the past how to make mechanical chronos readable today, but they still don’t pr…[? post cut off in original].
Posted by heb:
.. to your “Vintage” list. Based upon your explanation of “much seen” watches on the wrists of actual aircrewmen, from my earliest experience (mid 70’s to very early 80’s), I nominate these two:
1. Seiko’s “Navigator Timer” — the poor man’s GMT Master.
2. Seiko’s 30 minute chronograph w/o constant seconds, especially in the bright metallic yellow dial. I can’t remember the exact name of this model, but being in SEA, you no doubt saw these quite abit.
Posted by Time Flies:
Yep! Two good additions. Thanks, heb.
Posted by Grahame:
Great post – nothing to disagree with here! Aviation, divers and even space watches (and what about the “Master L3anker” – does anyone out there know rhyming slang?) are designations which the marketing guys in the watch industry dreamed up to shift more metal. In many cases the watches so designated bear little resemblance to instruments currently used in the specific application area.
On the other hand, how many of you Cosmonaute owners have ever been outside Earth’s atmosphere? What was a Breitling Emergency doing on the wrist of a barman in a London soap opera? And what on earth are some Japanese manufacturers doing when they make a diver’s watch with a 50m rating?
Marketing the romance of flight and nostalgia for the days when aeroplanes were made from canvas, wood and string would probably irritate me if I was a real pilot – but I’m not, I just happen to like uncomplicated watches with a black face.
A few more for your list of classic pilot’s watches – the Tutima 1941 two dial chronograph, the Hanhard chronograph and the various Mk20’s (there was a post on this a few days ago).
TF: thanks for your post, it’s very interesting and I wholeheartedly agree with everything you say.
Posted by Time Flies:
Thanks, Grahame, I do appreciate it…(more) I also agree with your points and the additions you note for my list of watches.
Posted by RayHull:
Greg: Any commercial airlines- issue pilots’ watches??
Posted by Ol’crewdog:
Yes, there were. Two that pop to mind are:
1) IWC’s cal 89 identical to that supplied to the RAF under the Mark Xl specification. It was used by BOAC (British Overseas Airline Corporation, today better known as British Airways) and I believe several other Commonwealth carriers; and,
2) perhaps the most famous, the Rolex GMT Master. The Rolex was specifically developed for, and at the request of, Pan American. James Dowling has written an excellent piece on this, and you can see it on his website.
I here may be others; these two, I’m sure of
Posted by Ol’crewdog:
Hi Greg and fellow TZers –
I’ll chip in my nickel’s worth here. Make sure that you read the thread down below – it’s a good one. Thanks, Greg.
Flying hotdogs, or, if cows had wings.
I really enjoyed reading Greg’s post. Not surprisingly, I agreed that every single one of his choices for vintage real pilot’s watches should be on that list. After all, our birthdays are only six days apart, and our ages within several years; we seem to like watches and share an inordinate olfactory affinity in the morning for something that smells like kerosene.
I completely agree that most of what are passed off as “Pilot’s watches” have little, if any, aviation heritage or application other than a general look to them and a marketing department’s desire to sell a theme that seems to be hot.
I also agree that one test of a Pilot’s watch is whether or not pilots really chose the darned things. The primary period of time that Greg is talking about is the sixties and seventies, and really American military pilots. By that point in time, the American military were issuing the same standard issue watch to pilots and non-pilots alike. These general issue timepieces were not wonders of horology. Well, they were junk, to be honest.
So it is no surprise that pilots scraped together, somehow, enough money to buy a premium timepiece that actually did help them time and do things they needed to do. The three that always jump first to my mind, in order, are the Rolex GMT, the Omega Speedy Pro, and the Glycine Airman. None of these were issue but lots of military and civilian pilots voted for them with their dollars, and they are the real thing.
But I think that there is room for more, including many watches which were issue, even “time of day ~ watches.
The viewpoint that Greg has eloquently described is valid for the American experience, and for a specific era. That said, it doesn’t account for how a different type of watch was a good pilot’s watch in a different era with different needs, or how issued pilot’s watches in another country might have better met those needs.
At the same time that Uncle Sam was issuing cheap stuff, other countries were issuing something different to their air forces.
In the fifties and sixties the French and Germans, for instance, were issuing some pretty darned good chronographs to their flightcrews. The Heuer chrono with the Valjoux flyback movement is a great example. Big simple, clean, high contrast layout with useful functions only. No distracting clutter to compete with visually. The Brits also were issuing a variety of good chronographs to flightcrew, for example, the Lemanias.
I wonder whether as many American pilots would have felt the need to buy something of their own, especially since the purchase price usually did represent a sacrifice, if Uncle Sugar had issued timepieces like these to aircrew instead of. . .
British, French, and German pilots didn’t have to vote with their own cash for these good, functional flight watches because someone had done a good job of thinking through what to issue.
I think that pieces like these deserve a place at the table, not because they were issue alone, but because they did a good job of meeting the functional need.
Time of Day Watches
The time of day watch, as a pilot’s watch, is a complete irrelevancy today: that wasn’t always the case.
In the most modern “glass” cockpits, a pilot doesn’t need a watch at all. Timers abound and are more convenient to use in many cases than a wristwatch. It is much simpler to press the engine start button with your right index finger and simultaneously use your left thumb to push the start button on your yoke for an onboard timer with a display in the center of the yoke, than it is to try and push the engine start button and depress a pushpiece on a chronograph simultaneously using your right hand to do both.
Inertial reference systems and GPS, combined with a lot of computer power, have reduced much of the busywork of navigation. GPS, ironically, is based upon computing timing differences between signals from multiple satellites in different locations to compute position, so timekeeping is still important to fixing your position – it’s just that a computer does it now, a lot more accurately, and treeing you up to do something else.
It wasn’t always like that.
It really wasn’t that long ago that a navigator was an essential crewmember aboard any long range aircraft. Despite advances in radio navigation, the navigator still shot the sun and the stars, and looked up his angular positions in tables, then reduced it all to a position fix.
A critical piece of that exercise was knowing the exact time of the sightings. Like his maritime ancestors, the aerial navigator needed a highly accurate, reliable timepiece – in effect, the marine chronometer.
The highest quality “Pilot’s watches” were issued to pilots only in the second instance. First claim on the best flight watches went to the Navigators because of the critical importance of accurate time to their job performance.
This is hardly statistically valid, but six or seven vintage ex-RAF pilots I have shown a Mark Xl to all immediately identified it as a “Navigator’s watch”. The Beobachtungs-Uhren issued by the Luftwaffe in WWII were similarly Navigators’ watches.
While none of those watches were issued chronometer certificates, their respective militaries did adjust and regulate them to those standards, and then test them to them, before issuing each individual piece for service. Timepieces like these were not for general issue -they were for aircrew, and Navigators first, please.
General issue timepieces of that era, such as the WWW British Mark X watches, typically had a small sub-seconds hand; most (though not all) aircrew watches had a more prominent center seconds hand, recollecting the increased importance of to the second timing at aircraft speeds. The introduction of the “hacking” feature was driven by aviation needs – the Weems patent method of setting a watch to the second was the attempt to address that need when watchmakers were reluctant to stop the balance wheel for tear of damaging the movement.
So there were time of day watches that we look at today and think of as nothing special that were very special, indeed, in their time. They were just as important a tool to the aerial navigator then as redundant IRS and GPS are today to a pilot.
We take these things forgranted today but over a half-century ago they were something special. I think that it is fitting to give them a seat at the table, too.
WrapUp@TM (plagiaristic apologies to you-know-who)
I wholeheartedly agree with Greg that there is too much fluff floating around today under the guise of “Pilots’ watches”. Most are nice watches powered by a lot of marketing hot air.
Many “real” pilots’ watches weren’t issued by anyone – they were selected by the pilots themselves, and every
one on Greg’s list deserves a place at the table.
I just want to make sure that we save some places, too, for some of those issue, and time of day, watches that I think have historically earned their spot as well, at a different time, and under different circumstances.
Now, I really need to decide whether to go put on my Breitling Cosmonaute, Omega X-33, or IWC Mk Xl – any thoughts?
Posted by Time Flies:
Wear anything you like Crewdog since you win the prize…for doing one heck of a fine job filling in the gaps and fleshing out my essays. Indeed, I have formulated opinions on what I know best — my own experiences and those with whom I flew. Your take on the subject broadens the view appropriately and accurately. I agree with your assessments regarding the importance of excellent “time-only” watches ala the British Mark series of watches. Certainly, these watches were head and shoulders above the ones issued to American crews during the period to which I refer — 60’s onward. However, I do emphasize that while those Mark series of watches (and others issued during that time) were still lacking in what aircrews really wanted, I’m sure. At the same time, I understand it would have been prohibitive to try to issue chronographs during that time. The technology was there, but it is likely that the costs would have been unbelievable. It is also possible that the technology for required accuracy specifications could not be translated to chronographic movements. This is an interesting question that someone here can possibly answer.
In the meantime, you have proved once again to be fine wingman who is keeping his eyes open and head on a swivel.
You can fly with me anytime. And, you would likely teach me a few things, that’s for sure — like how to handle engine outs in Arkansas.