Pilot watches have always sparked the imagination of watch enthusiasts. Maybe because everyone wanted to be a pilot or an astronaut when they were little?
Whatever the case, these big, watches, with their very particular style, have become a must for those who love sportiness but don’t give up the more vintage suggestions of when aeronautics wasn’t GPS and jets but compasses and pistons. Let’s discover together what the watch companies have done to bring back this mood!
What is a pilot watch?
The modern pilots’ watch is a direct heir to the category of tool watches that pilots wore mainly during World War II. Historically, these were large timepieces derived from precise marine chronometers, made to be worn over the sleeves of pilots’ flight jackets. These were necessary because, at the time, most of the airplanes were not pressurized, so it was freezing inside the cockpit. Just think that at 10,000 meters, the cruising altitude of modern airliners, the temperature is -60°C!
These watches were equipped with sturdy leather straps provided with metal reinforcements. A noticeable feature of these timepieces was the onion-shaped crown, usually of considerable size, which could be easily operated even while wearing gloves.
It is pretty evident that nowadays, none of these features is no longer essential for those who use them, but despite this, the charm of pilot watches has remained intact, and although the size has, fortunately, shrunk, these remain among the favorites of dynamic people who continue to keep, in their way, the… head in the clouds.
Who makes the best pilots watch?
Just as there is no such thing as the perfect cocktail, there is no such thing as the ideal pilot’s watch. Each of them interprets, in its way, the theme of the pilot’s watch, which has changed through history. Also, in addition to the originals derived from the German Flieger, many technical developments have accompanied the evolution of aircraft. In relatively few years, airplanes have become increasingly fast and capable of increasing exploits, so, in need of additional functions, primarily to calculate the range and route.
Therefore, we will illustrate a series of pilot watches of different types – ranging from the most heritage-looking vintage watches to the most modern tool watches for aviators – to let you choose the one that inspires you the most. Because to every pilot, or would-be pilot, his watch!
Best pilot watches under $1000
1 – Davosa Neoteric Pilot automatic red-black 16156556
If you want to find an automatic pilot watch with some original character and personality, produced by a Swiss company, and you want to spend less than $1,000, you have just found it: we are talking about the Davosa Neoteric Pilot in the red-black version. This excellent mechanical timepiece, powered by an automatic DAV 3021 caliber, based on a Sellita SW200 movement, gives you everything you could want in a pilot’s watch and more.
We like this version, featuring the two-tone dial decoration and a nice distressed brown leather strap that goes well with its vintage design. The watch has a water resistance of 50 meters, and a list price of $748.
2 – Avi-8 Hawker Hurricane Ref. AV-4011-0E
This is a fun timepiece that – let’s face it – has very little to do with the world of watches directly derived from historical models. It mounts a quartz chronograph mechanism, but we like, and a lot, this Avi-8 homage dedicated to the Hawker Hurricane (one of the most famous fighter-bombers of WWII) for its classic yet irreverent design.
The details of this timepiece are in a class above its “weight,” and its 42mm diameter is perfect for many people’s wrists. The most exciting thing is that, if you like it too, it can be an easy whim to satisfy, as it costs just over $300.
Best Flieger watches
3 – Laco Augsburg 42 Ref. 861688.2
The Germans are the ones who invented the Flieger – and here, you can buy the direct heir to one of those watches that WWII Luftwaffe pilots wore during their missions. In this case, we’re talking about Laco, a company founded in 1925 in Pforzheim that has continued to produce these highly distinctive watches over the years.
The modern version – with a classic line and immediately recognizable – is much smaller than the original, with a 42 mm case, and mounts a modern Miyota 821a automatic movement that ensures the watch 42 hours of autonomy and allows to ensure aviation enthusiasts a very attractive price, less than $500.
4 – Fortis Flieger F-41 Midnight Blue
It’s not respecting the design of the original Fliegers. Still, this modern interpretation from Fortis doesn’t disappoint – in fact, it helps bring the original style of the German pilot’s watch closer to the demands of a life spent with the feet firmly on the ground.
The Flieger F-41, water-resistant to 200 meters, has a 41 mm case (and a smaller 39 mm sibling) with a deep blue dial on which white and orange markers stand out for excellent visibility. It mounts a Sellita-based Fortis UW-30 automatic movement with 38 hours of power reserve. List price of around $2,000.
Best Seiko pilot watches
5 – Seiko 5 Sports Flieger SRPH29K1
You can afford a genuine Flieger-style watch made of Japanese quality for an affordable expense. Belonging to the Seiko 5 Sports line, this timepiece has all the features of an original B-Uhr. It integrates them with the indication of the date and day on a military green dial equipped with white and orange markers, accompanied by a technical strap in matching colors.
Its size, just over 39mm, makes it perfect for any wrist. It mounts a robust Seiko 4R36 automatic caliber with 41 hours of power reserve, which you can admire through the Hardlex mineral crystal case back. You can find it at around $200.
6 – Seiko Flightmaster SNA411
We haven’t talked about an iconic watch like the Breitling Navitimer, but we’ll talk about its Seiko-made equivalent, which has the added bonus of costing a lot less. There are several versions of the Flightmaster, depending on function: they’re based on a 42mm stainless steel case, a rotating bezel bristling with indications, and use a Seiko Caliber 7T62 quartz movement.
Branding aside, they’re everything a Breitling could be, only with the precision of their quartz movement and, of course, features and construction details that can’t be on the level of those of the Navitimer. Still, these watches don’t disfigure at all and are a great low-cost alternative to buying an actual pilot’s watch. Expect to spend around $230 to get one.
Best classic/vintage aviation watches
7 – Hamilton Khaki Aviation Day-Date Ref. H64725531
This watch from the Swiss/American company looks like something out of a documentary because of how accurately its styling echoes suggestions of WWII watches. It’s a large watch, at 46mm in diameter, and has a very visible dial, even in low light.
It houses a modern H30 movement from Hamilton, which offers an impressive 80 hours of power reserve, so you can leave it on your nightstand for an entire weekend and find it ready and ticking when you return. And a detail not to be underestimated is that it costs a lot less than you might think for such a fine-looking automatic watch: we’re talking of a tad less than $1,000.
8 – IWC Mark XVIII Heritage
IWC is one of the Maisons that have most influenced the world of pilots’ watches. Of course, its “Little Prince” is a real watchmaking icon, but in this list, we prefer to propose this other model that innovatively mixes the old and the new to obtain a particular and unique timepiece.
This Mark XVIII Heritage takes the characteristics of the WWII Fliegers but concentrates them in a case with a limited size of 40 mm in titanium, which proves to be light and indestructible, making this timepiece very versatile. The movement is also protected by a soft iron inner coating that shields it from magnetic fields. Expect to spend around $4,000.
Best type B pilot watches
9 – Alpina Pilot Heritage Mk II – AL-435LB4SH6
B-Uhrs were particular Fliegers, which differed from standard watches by the presence of a second scale on the dial – and this Alpina, a prestigious company that is now part of the Citizen group, reproduces a model that the house launched in 1926, which combines the typical double scale of the B-Uhr with a second dial at six o’clock.
This is a genuinely fascinating heritage watch, unaltered in its important size of 50 mm. This timepiece mounts a manual caliber, the AL-435, derived from the famous Unitas movement with 46 hours of power reserve, which is clearly visible through the case back once it has been folded open, thanks to the hinge on the side. List price starting from $1,100, depending on the model.
10 – Stowa Flieger Klassik 40 Baumuster B
Again, let’s go straight to the source: Stowa is a Maison that has been making watches since 1927 – and this B-Uhr echoes the lines of the watches that came off the house’s production line during the war, only reduced to a more affordable 40mm size that can be worn by virtually everyone, men and women alike.
The movement, an automatic caliber ETA 2824-2 top version with blued screws, is visible through the transparent case back. The inscriptions found initially on the 1940 version have been carried over to the rotor of this timepiece. Price list around $1,250.
Best GMT watches for pilots
11 – Glycine Airman GMT No.1
The birth of GMT watches happened with this timepiece. Launched in 1953, one year before the Rolex GMT Master, the Glycine Airman continues to be produced to delight enthusiasts with its unique appeal. The Airman has a dial divided into 24 hours (so it takes some adjusting to calculate the time!) and displays a second time zone on an external rotating bezel secured by a second crown.
The Glycine Airman No.1 faithfully echoes the first Airman produced, starting with the case diameter of just 36mm (though you’ll find larger versions in the Maison’s lineup) and the dial, right down to the color of SuperLuminova used. The only details that have changed over time are the crystal, now sapphire crystal, and the movement, now a robust Sellita automatic caliber. Price list around $950.
12 – Tissot Heritage Navigator Automatic 160th Anniversary
It’s not precisely a GMT, but this timepiece represents something more: it’s a true worldtimer, showing the time in every timezone around the globe. Moreover, its timeless design faithfully echoes the first Navigator, launched in 1953 but adapted to a larger 43mm case.
This Heritage version, launched in 2013 to celebrate the 160th year of the Maison, belongs to the automatic watches variety: it is certified as a chronometer by COSC and mounts an ETA 2893-3 caliber, shown through the sapphire crystal case back. An iconic timepiece for very little expense – around $1,650 only.
Best pilot chronograph watches
13 – Bremont GMT chronograph ALT1-ZT
Bremont is a British company that has undoubtedly raised the attention of watch enthusiasts with its timepieces, and indeed this watch, which combines the two complications that combine GMT and chronograph watches, can only please fans of the brand and tease the attention of those who do not yet know this reality of contemporary watchmaking.
This model combines undeniable vintage references with innovative functionality and encloses in its 43 mm case an automatic caliber E-54AE with 42 hours of power reserve and chronometer certification. Price list is $5,795.
14 – Davosa Newton Pilot moon phase chronograph automatic – black – 16158655
This stunning chronograph combines many different functions within its 44mm case: a full chronograph, an annual calendar, and a moon phase indicator for a timepiece that is not only sporty but takes us back to the heroic and romantic era of early long-distance air travel.
The Davosa Newton Pilot is equipped with a sophisticated automatic caliber DAV 3051, based on the ETA 7751. It is visible in all its beauty and decorations from the sapphire crystal case back and represents the top of the range of the Swiss company, but still, at an affordable price of $2,395.
Best pilot watches 38mm
15 – Sinn 556A
This model by Sinn represents an excellent interpretation of the Flieger design, combined with a modern and wearable timepiece, in an unusual size for a watch of this type. Still, for this reason, it becomes particularly interesting for its portability and versatility – it offers a water resistance of 200 meters.
The dial is very clean, with a simple minute scale and large numbers placed at the quarter hours, perfectly visible even from a distance. The Sinn 556 has a 38.5 mm case in satin-finished steel and mounts a Sellita SW200-1 automatic movement, shown through an exposed sapphire crystal case back. List price, $990.
16 – Archimede Pilot 39 H.S. LS Ref. UA7969-A4.1S
Despite its Italian-sounding name, Archimede is a small German manufacturer that makes Flieger watches of great charm and quality. And this Pilot 39 (one millimeter above our limit – now sue us) is a perfect interpretation of the theme, dedicated to the more restrained wrists.
Despite the size of the steel case, it proposes the elements of a true Flieger, with the typical large onion crown and a simple and readable dial. Housed in its case is an automatic ETA 2824-2 caliber with 38 hours of power reserve – and it manages to impress with its price, which is as small as its size: around $570.
The microbrand offering
The magical world of aviation could not leave the microbrands indifferent, and they presented a number of timepieces dedicated to this sector. As we shall see, the offerings range from chronographs to models with a military slant – but they all share a timeless style and that gaze toward something lost, up there in the clouds.
17 – Undone Aero Commando
Undone is a brand founded in Hong Kong, and it offers this cute Aero Commando that combines typical elements of a vintage flieger with a metal bezel operated by a specially designed crown. The beauty of this timepiece is that you can extensively customize it thanks to an online configurator (even by inserting a photo of your choice on the caseback!).
The watch mounts a robust Seiko NH35 automatic movement in its 40mm steel case, with water resistance of 100 meters. The watch offers an exposed case back by default, revealing the movement, and the best news is that it costs very little: about $390, which varies according to the options you choose.
18 – Perseo Nighthawk
Perseo’s story is very interesting: it is an Italian manufacturer, specializing in making railroad watches, since it bought and resold, under its own brand, the famous Cortebert-manufactured timepieces.
Among its production today, in addition to watches that follow its tradition, it has other interesting timepieces such as this Nighthawk, of true pilot’s watch inspiration, which pleases for the harmony of its lines and the care of its manufacture. It has a 44mm steel case and blue dial that mounts a Sellita SW400 automatic caliber, based on the Valjoux 7750 design. Water resistance of only 50 meters – certainly not a water-friendly timepiece. List price, about $700.
19 – Guinand 31E Series
Another classic pilot’s watch, this timepiece from Guinand, entirely designed and made in Germany, offers a classic pilot’s watch, with a diameter of 42 mm, that mounts a special movement, clearly visible through the visible case back.
This caliber, made on the basis of a hand-wound Unitas 6497, offers an unusual hacking function designed by Helmut Sinn, where the seconds hand, with the crown pulled out, continues to run and automatically stops at twelve o’clock. 100 meters water resistance and a list price around $1,750.
We could go on and on, immersing ourselves in the blue of the sky, the environment evoked by these fascinating timepieces. But, apart from their design, what characterizes them is precisely the evocation of this fascinating world, which continues to exert its attraction on us that instead of planes diving through the clouds, we have to make do with diving into traffic.
Luckily, while we’re stuck in a traffic jam after another accident on the freeway, we can peek at our wrist and dream of taking flight, looking at the Flieger adorning it. Today we have self-driving cars: tomorrow, who knows? Maybe they could actually fly!