The 20 Best Pilot Watches of 2021

Sep 20, 2021

Category: Gear

One does not simply “buy a watch.” One first has to take into consideration things like budget, mechanical vs. quartz, and what style you’re after. When it comes to the latter, there are many options from which to choose. From the ever-popular dive watch to trendy integrated-bracelet sports watches to refined dress watches, there is no shortage of watch styles available. And one of the most timeless of them all is the pilot watch. The best pilot watches have a certain cool factor that’s tough to beat while also offering some utility for actual aviators.

Unlike dive watches, which tend to all follow the same basic formula — uni-directional dive-time bezel, high-vis hands and indices, lots of lume, screw-down crown, at least 200m water resistance, etc. — pilot watches are not a monolithic category. While you can certainly recognize the most traditional among them as having a “pilot’s watch” look, there is such a wide variety of styles that fall under the aviation watch umbrella that seemingly almost anything can qualify as a pilot watch. We’ve cleared up what makes a watch a pilot watch below, so give that a look and then read on to discover our list of the 20 best pilot watches to buy.

What Is A Pilot Watch?

Gonna Fly Now

At their most basic and traditional level, a pilot’s watch should have a handful of features. It should have a very large and easy-to-read dial, with clear hands and indices, that allows for quick reading while maneuvering an aircraft. Those hands and indices should also be lumed to allow for reading during nighttime flights. And the crown should be large enough that it can easily be operated while wearing gloves. Outside of these core features, there’s a lot of wiggle room in what qualifies as a pilot watch, but there are three main categories that most will end up falling under.

Flieger: The most classic, iconic, and recognizable pilot watch design is also its most basic. The Flieger was invented for German pilots during WWII (it’s, uh, best to not think about that connection) and they prioritized legibility above all else. Their oversized cases have large matte-black dials, sword-shaped hands, and one of two dial layouts. The “A” layout looks like a traditional watch face, with Arabic numerals for hours 1-11 and a triangle indicating 12 o’clock. The “B” layout uses the same triangle at twelve, but opts for two timekeeping tracks on the dial. The outer track, labeled with Arabics every five minutes, tracks minutes and lines up with the end of the minute hand. The inner track, labeled with Arabics for every hour, tracks hours and lines up with the end of the hour hand. Finally, an oversized conical “onion-style” crown and leather strap complete the Flieger formula. Just five companies made the watches to start — IWC, Stowa, Laco, A. Lange & Söhne, and Wempe — but many others have made Fliegers or Flieger-inspired watches since.

Pilot’s Chronograph/Flight Computer: A more modern design, pilot’s chronographs and flight computers offer additional complications beyond timekeeping that can aid a pilot in flight. These complications can run the gamut from basic countdown bezels and chronographs to more involved features like slide rule bezels. The latter is a common feature in these types of watches, as it combines scaled inner fixed and outer rotating bezels that can be used in conjunction with one another to calculate things like airspeed, distance, fuel consumption, rate of climb or descent, and flight time. Modern planes will obviously do all of these things for a pilot, of course, but additional utility on your wrist is never a bad thing.

GMT: These days, GMT watches are thought of more as traveler’s watches than pilot’s watches, but this type of timepiece was actually invented specifically for aviators. In the 1950s, international airplane travel was becoming increasingly common. Pan-Am — the dominant airline of the day — put out a request to watchmakers to create a watch that would allow their international pilots to keep track of two timezones at once. Of the two brands that were first to answer the call, Glycine and Rolex, it was the latter’s design that became the industry standard. The original Rolex GMT Master, which debuted in 1954, combined a 24-hour bezel with a fourth hand that makes one full revolution around the dial every 24 hours, two features that continue to appear on most GMT watches today.

Marathon Navigator

It’s not uncommon for watch companies to throw around the phrase “mil-spec,” but Marathon is one of the few brands that can actually back up its claims. A brand mainstay since 1986, the Navigator is an ultra-tough pilot watch that was built to strict military specifications at the request of San Antonio’s Kelly Air Force Base. The watch needed to be able to withstand high altitude and extreme pressure changes while being easy to read, and the Navigator, with its anti-shock specialized fibershell case, high-torque quartz movement, and tritium gas lume, was more than up to the challenge.

Case Size: 41mm
Movement: Quartz
Water Resistance: 60m

Purchase: $385

Laco Augsburg 39

As one of the five original manufacturers of Flieger watches, German watchmaker Laco has the style down pat. Not only that, but the budget-oriented brand also makes the most affordable authentic Fliegers available. This A-Type model comes in a more wearable 39mm case size, allowing for small-wristed enthusiasts to experience an authentic and classically styled pilot’s watch without feeling like they’re strapping a Frisbee to their wrists. And don’t worry, if you’re larger-wristed or simply more traditional, a 42mm version is also available.

Case Size: 39 or 42mm
Movement: Automatic
Water Resistance: 50m

Purchase: $410

Citizen Promaster Skyhawk A-T Blue Angels

Fliegers offer a lot of style and history, but let’s face it, they’re not the most useful tools for the pilots of today. Modern aviators are more likely to have one of these babies strapped to their wrist. A contemporary classic flight computer from Citizen, the Skyhawk’s complicated dial manages to squeeze in a chronograph, a perpetual calendar, a dual-time function, a slide rule bezel, alarms, a countdown timer, a UTC display, and a power reserve. Its atomic timekeeping provides accurate time in 43 cities across the globe, and its Eco-Drive quartz movement is powered by light.

Case Size: 45mm
Movement: Solar Atomic Quartz with Perpetual Calendar, Chronograph, GMT, Timer, & Alarm
Water Resistance: 200m

Purchase: $556

Yema Flygraf Pilot

For the Flygraf, French watchmaker Yema took the basic components of a pilot watch — high-vis hands and indices, contrasting dial, superior lume — and managed to create something totally unique in the space. The watch certainly reads pilot’s watch, but it mixes in elements you’d expect from other styles. You get the 300m water-resistance of a dive watch, the inner 24-hour track of a field watch, and, most striking of all, a Patek-like vertically-brushed steel bezel that’s normally reserved for integrated-bracelet sports watches from luxury brands.

Case Size: 39mm
Movement: Automatic
Water Resistance: 300m

Purchase: $690+

Farer Bradfield

Speaking of highly original takes on pilot watches, have a look at this sensory assault from Farer. The British microbrand that’s known for its use of color certainly lives up to its reputation with this model that combines a white dial with accents of navy, sky blue, and creamy yellow. The expansive dial and oversized conical onion crown let you know that this is still a pilot watch, as does the impressive ISO 764-certified magnetic resistance that’s achieved thanks to the use of a soft-iron inner Faraday cage.

Case Size: 39.5mm
Movement: Automatic
Water Resistance: 50m

Purchase: $890+

Christopher Ward C65 Cranwell

Christopher Ward wasn’t around back in the mid-twentieth century when the Swiss heritage brands were churning out legendary military timepieces, as the UK-based brand didn’t exist before 2005. But they’re certainly making some of the best mid-century military-inspired watches today, as evidenced by this old-school pilot’s watch that was made in conjunction with the Royal Air Force. Named for the RAF college, this watch features a Flieger-like dial with Old Radium Super-LumiNova and a COSC-certified chronometer movement.

Case Size: 41mm
Movement: Automatic
Water Resistance: 150m

Purchase: $995+

Stowa Flieger Classic Sport Baumuster B

Another of the five original Flieger manufacturers, Stowa is a bit higher up on the price ladder than Laco but still manages to come in below luxury watch cost levels. Naturally, along with Stowa’s increased price relative to Laco comes an uptick in quality, as seen in their classic B-Type Flieger. The watch boasts loads of luxury details, like heat-treated blued steel hands, top-level finishing on the Swiss-made ETA or Sellita movement of your choice, and hand-finished matte steel cases.

Case Size: 40 or 43mm
Movement: Automatic or Manual-Wind
Water Resistance: 200m

Purchase: $1,380+

Hamilton Khaki Aviation Converter Auto GMT

Can’t decide between a pilot watch with a slide rule bezel and one with a GMT function? Well, porque no los dos? Hamilton’s innovative and good-looking Converter Auto GMT mixes the two most popular pilot watch complications in a watch that somehow manages to look good without looking crazy busy. The bezel is bidirectional for quick calculations on the fly (literally), and the impressive movement boasts 80 hours of power reserve along with an independently adjustable hour hand, making this a rare “true” GMT.

Case Size: 44mm
Movement: Automatic GMT
Water Resistance: 100m

Purchase: $1,445+

Sinn 104

Although pilot watches have consistently been one of the most popular men’s watch styles for decades, they still pale in comparison to the ubiquitous dive watch’s pervasiveness. So to combat this imbalance, Sinn went out and made a pilot watch that both looks and acts a lot like a dive watch — and it’s gone on to become a legend in its own right. A pilot watch through and through, the highly legible 104 doubles as a versatile everyday sports watch thanks to its rotating countdown bezel (that looks like a dive bezel), attractive dial layout, and 200m water resistance.

Case Size: 41mm
Movement: Automatic
Water Resistance: 200m

Purchase: $1,490+

Fortis Flieger Midnight Blue

Fortis likes to say that their line of reimagined Flieger watches aren’t pilot watches, and they’re right in the sense that you certainly don’t need to fly planes in order to wear one. Still, the design of these versatile tool watches was clearly influenced by traditional Flieger watches — hence the name — so they fit the pilot watch bill in our book. The new Midnight Blue not only boasts unique features that could potentially aid aviators, like the 12-hour bezel, Synchroline synchronization system, and Brixtrack illumination, but it also has a case crafted from recycled stainless steel — a first for a tool watch.

Case Size: 39 or 41mm
Movement: Automatic
Water Resistance: 200m

Purchase: $2,000+

Hanhart 417 ES

Hanhart may fly under the radar (no pun intended) among the general watch-collecting population, but the brand is kind of a big deal when it comes to aviation watches. The German watchmaker has been cranking out iconic pilot’s chronographs since the 1930s, and one of their most legendary designs was the 417 ES. Introduced in the 1950s, the watch was a favorite of style icon Steve McQueen, and Hanhart’s modern day reissue of the bi-compax chrono with the coin-edge bezel allows you to cop McQueen’s classic style without paying vintage prices.

Case Size: 42mm
Movement: Manual-Wind Chronograph
Water Resistance: 100m

Purchase: $2,140

Luminox SR-71 Blackbird

As a perennial favorite among the world’s special forces units, Luminox makes some of the toughest watches on the planet. Most of those watches tend to live in the more affordable realm of the market, but not the SR-71 Blackbird. Arguably the most high-end timepiece ever constructed by the brand, the Blackbird was made by Luminox in collaboration with Lockheed Martin at the request of the U.S. Air Force. The watch’s tough black PVD stainless steel case houses a Valjoux automatic chronograph movement and its Midnight Green enamel dial offers the brand’s always-on tritium gas tube illumination.

Case Size: 44mm
Movement: Automatic Chronograph
Water Resistance: 100m

Purchase: $3,250

Longines Avigation Watch Type A-7 1935

As you have seen throughout this list, brands love to go retro with their pilot’s watch offerings. Most of the time, that translates to reissues from WWII or the 1950s, but such “modern” dates aren’t quite vintage enough for 191-year-old Longines. The Swiss heritage brand plumbed the depths of its archives to dig out this unique piece from 1935. With its angled dial, oddly-placed crown, and monopusher chronograph movement, the Type A-7 Reissue offers up tons of very old-school panache in a package that’s quite unlike anything else on the market.

Case Size: 41mm
Movement: Automatic
Water Resistance: 30m

Purchase: $3,450

Bell & Ross BR 03-92 Black Matte

Though the brand has only been around since the 1990s, Bell & Ross has firmly established itself as one of the premier makers of pilot’s watches. And their “Flight Instruments” line is a big reason for why that is. With oversized square cases and extremely legible dials, B&R’s flagship watches are designed to look like they came right out of the cockpit and onto your wrist. The BR 03-92, especially in this sterile dial version with its matte black ceramic case, is the purest rendition of this modern icon.

Case Size: 42mm
Movement: Automatic
Water Resistance: 100m

Purchase: $3,700

Oris Big Crown Propilot Altimeter

It’s hard to come up with a brand that does a better job of producing entry-level luxury tool watches than Oris. And while the brand’s dive watches get loads of attention (and rightfully so), their pilot’s watches are no slouches, either. Oris’s Big Crown Propilot is already among the best modern pilot renditions you’ll come across, but the Altimeter version takes things to a whole different level. The watch incorporates an actual working altimeter in the bezel, marking the first time any automatic watch has managed such a feat.

Case Size: 47mm
Movement: Automatic
Water Resistance: 100m

Purchase: $3,800

Bremont ionBird

Bremont takes a unique approach when they produce pilot watches in that they invest a ton of R&D into how the watches perform in the field, er, air. After all, this is the brand that puts their iconic MBII watches under the same rigorous testing as Martin-Baker ejection seats. For the ionBird, Bremont partnered with Rolls-Royce (the aerospace company) to craft an aerospace-grade titanium watch that will be worn on the wrists of the company’s test pilots when they attempt to break the speed record for zero-emissions aircraft onboard the “Spirit of Innovation” — a plane whose cockpit was co-designed by Bremont.

Case Size: 43mm
Movement: Automatic GMT
Water Resistance: 100m

Purchase: $5,795+

Zenith Pilot Type 20 Chronograph Extra Special

If big and bold is what you’re looking for in a pilot’s watch — and Bell & Ross is somehow a little too subtle — then Zenith has the watch for you in the Pilot Type 20 Chronograph. A 45mm case in bronze. Massive lumed Arabic numeral indices and substantial sharpened-cathedral hands. An onion crown that’s nearly as big as the case of some ladies watches. And Zenith’s legendary El Primero chronograph movement beating away inside at a speedy 36,000 bph. Yep, this one is not for the faint of heart.

Case Size: 45mm
Movement: Automatic Chronograph
Water Resistance: 100m

Purchase: $7,900

IWC Big Pilot

Is there a more quintessential pilot’s watch than this? IWC, one of the five original Flieger makers, has over the years transformed the design into their iconic Big Pilot. A simple name that perfectly describes what this watch is, the Big Pilot is just the best execution you’ll find of the classic pilot’s watch archetype. There’s a 43mm case that’s big but not unwearable, a squeaky-clean Type A Flieger dial layout with plenty of lume, and a generously sized conical crown that’s a dream to operate. If you like your pilot watches to be on the traditional side, it just doesn’t get any better than this.

Case Size: 43mm
Movement: Automatic
Water Resistance: 100m

Purchase: $8,400

Breitling Navitimer

Not only is the Navitimer the flagship timepiece for Breitling, it’s also the most iconic pilot’s chronograph made by anyone. This is the watch that popularized the slide rule bezel, pairing the math-heavy feature with a tri-compax chronograph layout to create the watch’s famously busy design. These days, with prices starting near ten grand, the Navitimer is more luxury product than utilitarian tool watch, but it remains popular among aviators and will forever be a legend in the space.

Case Size: 46mm
Movement: Automatic Chronograph
Water Resistance: 30m

Purchase: $9,160+

Rolex GMT Master II

Is the GMT Master still a pilot’s watch? The watch has certainly transcended its high-flying origins to become a style icon here on terra firma, but that doesn’t mean its past should be dismissed. Despite the modern version’s flashy ceramic bezel and near-impossible to obtain status, there’s still a lot of Jet Age romance baked into the Rolex GMT — not to mention it’s still plenty useful for pilots thanks to its convenient GMT complication. So as far as we’re concerned, this classic will always be a pilot watch, now and forever.

Case Size: 40m
Movement: Automatic GMT
Water Resistance: 100m

Purchase: $9,700+

The 30 Best Small Watches For Men

One thing you’re sure to have noticed about pilot watches is this: they’re not small. If your wrists are on the smaller side it can be tough to find a pilot watch that won’t look ridiculously oversized on you. Compound this with the oversized watch trend of the last two decades and it can be difficult to find any watch with a case size below 40mm — pilot or not. Or, at least, it was difficult before we came up with a guide to the 30 best small watches for men. Now, with our help, your wrist will never have to wear an oversized watch again.

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