Airtime: The 20 Best Pilot Watches

Born in the cockpits of fighter planes and the world’s very first aircraft, the Pilot watch began when wealthy, eccentric, European Alberto Santos-Dumont commented to Mr. Louis Cartier (the one and only) that he had trouble checking his pocket watch when he was using one of the flying contraptions he had purchased. Cartier decided at that moment to make for his friend the very first of what would later come to be called the pilot’s watch: the Santos-Dumont wristwatch; elegant, simple, and easily read while your hands are busy.

The pilot watches of today bear much similarity to that selfsame item from the infant Cartier company. They are simple, with large displays that are easy to read while in a cockpit, motor vehicle, or working as a deck hand. The simplistic readout is accompanied by a resistance to losing time or stopping completely when exposed to centrifugal force, vibration, and changes in gravity. These features are what make up true pilot watches, with a large face being the easiest identifier. With these uncomplicated standards in mind, we found the 20 best Pilot’s Watches. Each of our picks wont fail or falter while doing barrel rolls or taking the kids around Disneyland.

Timex Quartz Aviator

Being able to get into the pilot watch game for less than a c-note is a feat worthy of praise. Award yourself with a nice Aviator. A slide rule top function gives this watch some serious cred as a utility piece. That’s backed up by the full quartz movement and that it’s water-resistant enough to go 330 feet into the deep blue before giving up the ghost. It’s a little on the large side, but uses unique semi-chronos at 45-degree angles for measuring minutes and hours. Push buttons flank the crown, which beeps during rotations. Best beginner’s buy.

Purchase: $99

Seiko Prospex

A Seiko watch that manages to also be unique with its numerical display is worthy of a serious look, and the Prospex doesn’t disappoint when you kick the tires, mash the buttons, and twist the crown. At 42mm, it takes up an ordinary amount of space on your wrist, but you’ll feel less encumbered by it than you do other watches, as the stainless steel is lighter weight than most comparable timepieces. Using quartz movement, the only place this watch cuts serious corners is with the Hardlex crystal, which will show scratches over time.

Purchase: $174

AVI-8 Hawker Hurricane

Flared jeans are a throwback fashion item; this watch is a whole other era trapped behind a mineral crystal window. Bearing Japanese quartz movement, you might not be getting a Swiss timepiece, but you’re getting something that is no slouch for a bargain price. The large face and basic numerals make this a pilot’s watch in name, but we don’t suggest you take to the skies with it. The slightly odd enumeration along with weak contrast on the face don’t assist in reading it, and the large crown coupled with the chronos are all problems and distractions when you’ve got both hands on the stick.

Purchase: $265

Laco Type A

Since 1925, Laco has been a standard for quality at a price that the average person can reach. They bring true German engineering to the table, and with their Type A, which is a throwback to their original flieger models, they’ve shown why their brand has lasted so long. A wide, readable face with clear minute marks that can even be read in the dark gives the wearer a stunning way to check the time. It has an average 42mm face that feels smaller on your wrist, and a Citizen Miyota 821A automatic movement under the hood that winds itself with limited loss of time.

Purchase: $297

Ventus Caspian C-02

Angular hands and a swift, hacking movement, the C-02 isn’t the way to get bragging rights, unless you’re looking for nothing but accurate time. The staid surface and Seiko NH35 auto movement are precisely what a vintage pilot watch should be: Understated, reliable, and bearing a domed sapphire crystal that helps with the 330 feet of water resistance. It’s tough as a coffin nail and complements your fatigues rather than your dress blues, making it primed for real work. It won’t impress at a 5-star whiskey bar, but your gunny will love it.

Purchase: $299

Casio Men’s GWA1000-1A G-Aviation G-Shock

Capable of handling vibration, gravitational shifts, and a severe beating, this G-Shock watch might be a Casio, but its much more than meets the eye. What it lacks in looks it more than makes up for in its ability to keep time during the most punishing rigors that life throws your way, on and off the ground. A countdown timer with a fly back can keep you on schedule by knocking the hands out of the way of the LCD monitor. World time, chronograph functions, Neo-brite luminous hands and markers, and the ability to take 660 feet of water without flinching makes this a damn impressive if unattractive bit of kit.

Purchase: $380

Citizen Blue Angels

You do not put the Blue Angels name on something without making damn sure they’re on board with it. Those guys train to withstand the G’s of incredible aerial feats; they don’t authorize second-tier equipment. A quartz movement behind the azure exterior shows class; a slide-rule bezel and triple-threat chronos shows honest utility. This is a dress watch, so the bezel uses a crown operation system, which could never be done in flight, nor could the slide-rule be used. It’s more a nod to the past than meant for much in-flight function.

Purchase: $390

Garmin D2

Rare among the pilot watch crowd is a digital display, since the strenuous life of a true pilot involves pressure changes and atmospheric alteration that can interfere with a digital timepiece. Garmin knows this, but has still managed to make a gloriously geeky smartwatch that interfaces with airport databases for simpler routing when sky high or visiting the mud people. A WAAS GPS is included along with an incredibly astute compass, which adds survival and more tactical traits to the D2. It won’t turn heads with a glance, but it can literally save your life.

Purchase: $399

Steinhart Nav B-Uhr 47 Automatic B-Type

This is the least expensive watch on our list that reaches back into the annals of history and draws out a close approximation of the original pilot watch, used by World War I soldiers. The minutes line the exterior of the watch, with hours being marked on the inside. This arrangement is what is called a B-Type or bomber style watch, since they were most commonly used by bombardiers who needed to track minutes to hit a target. It still functions like any normal timekeeper would, and has all the accessories any enthusiast could want: sapphire crystal with non-reflective treatment, satin stainless steel case, and a natty Russian leather band.

Purchase: $439

Hamilton Khaki

The Khaki is the joke you get on the way home from the club. It isn’t a winner right out of the gate, but then it lands in your mind and you love it. On the surface, its another black watch, but then the hands start to grab you. Inverted top and bottom gaps between the hour and minute hand hint at leisurely fun, while the tang clasp shows complexity. It can go down 660 feet before the sapphire crystal or the exhibition back will start to take on much water. When it does get wet, be assured that the crown is screwed down tight. Stainless steel, an automatic movement, and a leather strap; the Khaki will keep on ticking well past retirement time.

Purchase: $622

Alpina Startimer

Perhaps not quite as sophisticated at the more elite pilot watches that lurk above the $2k mark, the Alpina is scrappy and ambitious. It comes in blue and black color options, with variations that can have all the chronos you want, or none at all. The Startimer has an X-factor to it, giving it an air of style and class that is undefined. Pull it out, and it gets noticed. Thankfully it’s easy to talk about it, with the sapphire crystal, real swiss quartz movement, and a nylon band that hints at a person of action; a trench fighter with a taste for the finer things.

Purchase: $714

Archimede 42 B

Some manufacturers honor the designer of a watch. Archimede chose to honor the B-Uhr pilots who actually used watches like these in combat. They used Beobachtungs, hence the “B” in the name. The 42 B is a relatively faithful representation of the plain, unadorned watch faces that were issued to the first pilots to require this type of hardware. Unlike those ticking anachronisms, the 42 B has an ICKLER case and Swiss-made automatic movement. Luminous numerals light this up, while the exterior track of the watch shows the minutes and seconds, with the hours playing second fiddle.

Purchase: $725+

Archimede 42 H

The 42 B directly above is a bombadier watch (B-style) with the minutes more prominently displayed. For a complete set, you should also get the 42 H, which has the true pilot appearance. Like the 42 B, this is an historic recreation, but this style of watch is more likely to sit on the wrist of the person who handles the flying due to the hours being displayed more noticeably. Like its brother, the 42 H has an ICKLER case and Swiss-made movement. Even the price is the same. This is merely a companion piece to the bombardier, or an alternative for those who need to be in the driver’s chair.

Purchase: $725+

Victorinox AirBoss

Victorninox is known primarily for its Swiss Army knives, but as a Swiss company, Victorinox also dabbles in watches. The AirBoss transfers over some of their knife know-how by using stainless steel all the way around for a more durable body that also won’t show damage after you’ve flown your 60 missions. Over the large, slender numerics and sword-shaped hands is a sapphire crystal that is built to deny reflection and avoid giving away your position to enemy troops. Behind all that kit is true Swiss automatic movement and 330 feet of water resistance.

Purchase: $727

Oris Big Crown ProPilot Line

This is a cheat, but each of the watches in the ProPilot line from Oris will keep the most belligerent flyboy satisfied. They each have a nice, oversized crown for simple adjustment while chasing down a bogey, altimeters for keeping track of height, and automatic winding. Operational textile bands, your choice of chronographs and bezels, and a stainless steel body that shrugs off oils and damage, you can use it while you’re doing some wrenching under the hood, or under the wing of your dogfighter. Take a simple and stylized choice for flashing at the officer’s club, or something an enlisted comrade will respect; your call.

Purchase: $899+

IWC Pilots Mark XVII

IWC is largely considered one of the most notable pilot watch manufacturers in the business. The new Mark XVII runs a hair small at 41mm, but you won’t need more space than that since the face is clean and uncluttered. No chronos or features mar the design, allowing the clean, crisp Swiss-made automatic movement to be appreciated beneath the sapphire crystal. The strap comes off with a push of the button for easy release should it become caught, or fast adjustment on the move. Like all IWC pilot watches, this has a soft-iron inner case to prevent magnetic interference, and carries a battery reserve time of 42 hours.

Purchase: $3,612

Bell & Ross WW1-92 Heritage

Any WWI reenactment participants you know are going to be very impressed with this watch. It captures the history of the pilot watch by marking the outside with minutes, using the triangular top marker for the reset mark. The PVD steel casing is bombproof, appropriately enough, and is held by a beige calfskin leather strap that is soft and supple, with just enough give to be comfortable, and enough space to fit over a flight jacket. You’ll catch limited reflection off the dome, but the photo-luminescent coating on the hands and the dial make the sunburst pattern glow reassuringly when the lights go down.

Purchase: $3,700

Omega Speedmaster Professional

The photo negative look of the face and the stainless steel body aren’t the only things that make the Speedmaster Pro stand out from the pack. It also has an included black bezel that gives it an air of professionalism the way that only black can. A full triple chrono load with a hesalite dial window, and a mechanical hand-winding mechanism arm this watch to the teeth. Used to impress as much as tell the time it bears a scant 165 feet worth of water resistance for beach action or wet work.

Purchase: $3,730

Zenith Montre DAeronef Type 20 GMT

Pick it up and it’s tough to say what will grab your eye first: The odd Arabic numerals that are nonetheless impressive, readable, and arresting; the immense crown for simple adjustment; or the Elite movement that prevents this watch from dropping time, even when working unwound. This is one of Zenith’s most prized pieces, and with good reason. It recreates their turn-of-the-century look with a more modern philosophy. SuperLuminova blocks make the face pop when the lights go down, as the black ruthenium coated hands with satin-brush finish look good whether it’s noon on Sunday or the dead of Tuesday night.

Purchase: $4,995

Breitling Navitimer 01

Using the Breitling Caliber 01 system, the timing and movement on this are a master stroke. Using the same stainless steel case since 1952, with its high ridges for easy grip and movement of the omni-directional bezel, not an ounce of function has been lost. The bright red second hand and silver chronograph indicators remain, as unabashed as ever. Customize it to suit your tastes, the Navitimer 01 gives you more information than you could possibly use on a face that is made for a pilots eyes, and a body that can survive the end of days.

Purchase: $5,275

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