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High-end mechanical wristwatches from Swiss and German manufacturers (e.g. Breitling, Rolex etc.) are often marketed as "pilot's watches", and have chronometer features to supposedly help pilots perform flight-related computations.

While I know next to nothing about aviation, I find it difficult to imagine that such a mechanical watch (which, for example, simply stops working if it is not moved for a few days) would be preferable to a modern quartz and/or digital watch, which keeps running for years on a single battery, self-adjusts with millisecond precision based on radio signals and even without that signal maintains time an order of magnitude more accurately than any mechanical watch.

To summarize: What kind of watches do modern commercial pilots actually wear? Or do they nowadays just use their cellphones for timekeeping tasks like everyone else?

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    $\begingroup$ In the past, pilot's watches had a superior precision. Their display is easy readable, even at night, the big buttons can be pressed with gloves they had a stop watch, a tachymeter and so on. They were (and still are) a piece of high tech. This and the myth around being a pilot makes this clocks very favored. Even in the past, only a fraction was actually sold to real pilots. I guess today some pilots wear them as they are made for them, not because they need them. This may be different for military pilots. $\endgroup$ – sweber Sep 17 '15 at 7:45
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    $\begingroup$ Totally off topic but divers do wear diver's watches, including Rolex Oysters. If your digital diving computer bonks, it's important to have a good backup so that you can time your decompression. And when your brain is bonkers on nitrogen poisoning, an analogue watch with one-way bezel is great. I personally use a Seiko Divemaster. $\endgroup$ – RoboKaren Sep 17 '15 at 14:43
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    $\begingroup$ In my day, if you wanted to know what time it was, you asked the flight engineer. I couldn't resist that. Actually, though, there's more truth than not in that. On long-haul 747 flights with old steam gauges, the f.e. was the one keeping track of the fuel burn. His time, whether from a wristwatch or the clock on his panel, was the defacto cockpit standard. $\endgroup$ – Terry Sep 17 '15 at 18:26
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    $\begingroup$ It depends on the diver. The former lead diver of the WKPP, arguably some of most hardcore extreme divers on the planet, wore and dove a very inexpensive Timex Ironman Triathlon digital. (I picked up the habit from him, and dove one myself, with very satisfactory results. It Just Worked.) The key to dealing with nitrogen narcosis is not to have that much nitrogen in your mix in the first place. (The first time I dove nitrox (EAN36), I discovered that I could tell the difference in 20 feet of water. I never dove air again.) $\endgroup$ – John R. Strohm Sep 17 '15 at 22:05
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    $\begingroup$ Best reason I heard from a senior pilot - it gives him something to play with when his wife made him go to the opera. $\endgroup$ – NobodySpecial Sep 17 '15 at 23:39

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High end mechanical pilots watches are very little use in the cockpit whether you are in a commercial airplane or a cessna 152. I love watches and I've searched for years for a watch that was a) very cool looking and b) actually useful when flying and I haven't found one yet. They usually fail on b) because their analogue chronometer and/or timer functions are very hard to interpret, and cannot be read at night. The digital readouts on the analogue/digital types are often small and rarely have lights for night flying. Some have lights that will only work when in calendar mode, which is about as useful as a chocolate teapot. Often the functions are hard to use and require a fair amount of fiddling to get them to work, which is not good when you have a high workload.

Commercial airplanes are usually so full of technology that a watch is completely redundant anyway, so for commercial pilots it's a matter of style. I'm not a commercial pilot, I fly older light aircraft with less technology, so having a watch with timer and chrono functions is handy. For this I wear a Casio G-Shock as it has a large and easily readable face, a light activated by its own button, simple to use, and very rugged. Digital kitchen timers also work very well.

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    $\begingroup$ I want a chocolate tea pot! $\endgroup$ – Daniel Griscom Sep 17 '15 at 14:42
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    $\begingroup$ @DanielGriscom: bbc.com/news/uk-england-york-north-yorkshire-29126161 $\endgroup$ – Ben Hocking Sep 17 '15 at 14:49
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    $\begingroup$ It is a britishism @DanielGriscom. It's one of my favorites I've picked up living in the UK the past few years. $\endgroup$ – GdD Sep 17 '15 at 15:19
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    $\begingroup$ I think the reason that there's not a better true pilot watch is that the market is too small. What you don't need is a watch, what you need is a wrist computer. I was thinking of writing an android app which would run on an old mobile phone you could strap onto your wrist. It's a lot of work though, and as my experience with my BB Density Altitude app showed it's hard to make a profit of these things. $\endgroup$ – GdD Sep 17 '15 at 15:22
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    $\begingroup$ @GdD I suppose you could just make an Android Wear app. Android Wear watches are quite literally wrist computers. You could even make set it up to program your route in ahead of time on your phone and have it show you the heading of the next turn and count down to when you should begin it, etc. Google Maps already does that for driving (except that, by default, it counts down distance to next turn rather than time.) $\endgroup$ – reirab Sep 17 '15 at 15:44
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Disclosure: I am both a watch enthusiast and a Pilot but on any note...

The answer to your question is generally no, but that varies by personal taste as well as personal choice. There are lots of threads on the various watch forums discussing this very topic here, here and here. The consensus is basically a few things. First off pilots no longer make the kind of money the once did and swiss watches have only shot up in price since say the 70's. If you are talking about an entry level professional pilot making in the very low 5 figures the chances they are going out and buying a $5,000+ watch is low. Now lets talk function. When you are in the cockpit a watch can be useful (provided you can read it). If your heading indicator fails you can use a watch and your turn coordinator to time your turns which can save your life in the clouds. I generally start my chronograph (omega speedmaster) when I take off, this gives me not only en route time but markers of the half hour blocks when I need to switch my tanks (on a piper warrior). For what its worth there is a clock in the plane as well as a timer so I don't need a watch but I enjoy wearing one. When I fly dead reckoning I carry an all mechanical Heuer Stop watch to time my legs. Again these things are in the plane but I find the hand held stop watch easier to use. Some fancy aviation watches provide flight computers on the bezels like breitlings but there is no way you are reading that in the air unless its really smooth up there.

enter image description here

The consensus around the internet and from what I have seen is that commercial pilots generally wear digital stuff or nothing at all (most casio and the like). Military fighter pilots where GShock's or what ever is issued if any thing is even issued. Some pilots may wear Rolex-GMT's or the such but that seems to be those that either really like watches or were gifted it etc. However Pan Am had a long standing relationship with Rolex over the years. Pan Am pilots may have sported an albino GMT or a special Pan Am Daytona depending on the era. The GMT Master was even designed in partnership with Pan Am and issued to long haul pilots.

On a side note there is a group of pilots that ALWAYS wear fancy swiss watches. Since the early days of the space program Omega has been the watch maker of choice for NASA and the Speedmaster has been the watch of choice as seen here on Buzz Aldrin

enter image description here

Some even say that the Speedmaster was used to time the engine burn on apollo 13 which may have in turn saved their lives. It is also reported that Neil Armstrongs Speedmaster Broke on the apollo 11 mission. Here is a comprehensive list of where all the watches reside now. The watches were worn on a NATO style velcro band that was a double wrap size so it could fit over the suits for EVA. The Speedmaster is still worn in space to this day however modern space suits have a flap covering it, making it hard to see in photos. The official Speedmasters (moon watches) are certified for maned space flight and stamped as such.

enter image description here

I would also like to expand on your statement

...which, for example, simply stops working if it is not moved for a few days

They do not stop working, the spring winds down and they will stop ticking however as soon as they are picked up again (and the rotor is spun if its automatic) they will start ticking again. That being said if you wear the watch every day, un like a digital that may die, a mechanical watch will tick perpetually until a component physically breaks.

On a bit of a tangent, some watch makers did make flight instruments (clocks) for aircraft over the years this is where much of the inspiration for the watches comes from. Elgin made a clock that was used in a few WW2 fighters, enter image description here

Heuer even had an IFR stop watch enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ I doubt that that the astronauts buy their watches, they most probably get them free as part of promotional consideration from Rolex et al. $\endgroup$ – RoboKaren Sep 17 '15 at 14:41
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    $\begingroup$ The astronaut watches are issued to them by NASA and are exclusively Omega Speedmasters (of varying versions over the years) the Speedmaster is one of the few watches certified for space flight and EVA operations. The only issuance of Rolexes I know of is the British divers who were issued mill spec submariners. $\endgroup$ – Dave Sep 17 '15 at 14:44
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    $\begingroup$ Sorry, Omega, yes of course. Shows how much good those promotional considerations are in raising brand awareness. ;-) $\endgroup$ – RoboKaren Sep 17 '15 at 16:05
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    $\begingroup$ It was far more than promotion. NASA had very stringent requirements for the watch which included reliable operation in a huge temperature range, water proof and wind up (perpetual rotors don't work in space). The Speedmaster is a far more capable watch than most people give it credit for. I will admit Omega has made the best of it from a marketing standpoint ;) $\endgroup$ – Dave Sep 17 '15 at 16:09
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    $\begingroup$ If I ever need some inspiration, I look at that picture of Buzz or the more well known one of him standing on the moon. $\endgroup$ – Simon Sep 17 '15 at 17:08
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Watches in today's cockpits really aren't a tool the way they were in the past. We aren't using our wristwatch as a chronograph to manage dead reckoning the way that was required before such modern luxuries as Loran gasp.

Wristwatches are more about expressing your style. It is more about jewelry. With the exception of a 24 hour Zulu hand, and a 24 hour bezel to be able to quickly reference three timezones, they mainly just look nice.

I have met some pilots that actually use the E6B on their watch, but most just like how it looks.

Aviation does have a very identifiable look, which is mainly what pilots are attracted to. Everyone likes to purchase things that are related to their passion, and flying is no different. Flight watches often resemble instrumentation and bring that part of the pilot's life to their wrist wherever they go.

edit In fact, the first wristwatch was invented just for pilots. One of the first wristwatches ever made was named "Santos" by Louis Cartier, which was made for a famous pilot at that time who complained about having to check his pocket watch while flying. (Source: http://theaviationist.com/2013/12/25/aviation-wrist-watches/)

So, the two things are incredibly closely identified with one another.

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Watches are extremely important for a pilot, especially small aircraft that do not have sophisticated instrument clusters. Everything is time-based and generally it is much better to trust your own watch than one built into the instrument cluster (unless it is a high-precision, calibrated clock on a large aircraft). Also, if anything happens that disrupts the aircraft functions or your visibility of the instruments, a watch is critical. For example, a fire or power failure can make a panel clock unlighted or obscured. Also, you may not be in the cockpit/flight deck and need to know what time it is.

The key factors for a "pilot's watch" are:

  • illuminated/visible in darkness

  • large numerals, clear and highly readable

  • ability to manage multiple time zones easily

  • 24-hour (military/zulu) display capability

  • day of the month indicator

  • rugged and water resistant, tough crystal, good quality construction

Currently I use a Torgoen T05101. It is a good watch, but uses phosphorescence. My next watch will use tritium illumination.

I have been known to use an egg timer in the cockpit.

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  • $\begingroup$ "I have been known to use an egg timer in the cockpit." I'm assuming you weren't doing a lot of negative G maneuvers while using it. $\endgroup$ – DJClayworth Sep 18 '15 at 14:51
  • $\begingroup$ @DJClayworth I use an electronic egg timer that has a powerful clip on the back, not a sand glass. I usually clip it onto a convenient surface. It has an alarm, so it beeps when the time runs out. Its great reminder for tank switchovers and stuff like that. $\endgroup$ – Tyler Durden Sep 18 '15 at 18:32
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    $\begingroup$ @TylerDurden -- that might also be integrable into your watch (I have a Casio that has countdown timer functions on it, among other things). $\endgroup$ – UnrecognizedFallingObject Oct 14 '16 at 21:24
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I currently work as a corporate pilot. I have flown with hundreds and now verging on thousands of pilots- I have 5000 hours tt and I can say that most guys fly with cheaper watches and if they choose an aviation specific watch, it's typically a Citizen. I don't think that they love them, but they are affordable and don't break. I have one and am thoroughly tired of it, but it just wont give me an excuse to buy anything else. Although I have kept my CFI current, and could show you how to use all the features of the E6B, that feature is a joke. It's way too small to practically use. Of all of those guys and a few gals that I have flown with, only 4 or 5 wear an expensive mechanical watch. I have known a couple who had GMT Rolex variants, only one that I recall with a Breitling and I have run into a few of the smaller boutique brands on a few wrists, here and there. I personally flew with a Torgoen for awhile. The only feature that I do really like to have, although yes, it's available elsewhere in the plane, is a very easy to read GMT/UTC sweep.

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I use the stopwatch for IFR training and holdings and the E6B for fuel range computation, speeds etc. Heck I even use this this to convert feet to inches on architectural elements heights, distances etc. Just by looking at them you get the opposite heading easily, either for navigation or knowing opposite runway numbers. What if you need to take 30 or 45 degrees from that heading so you intercept final?

Most pilots that know how use them, do.

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I have two Citizen brand pilot watches and a Garmin SmartWatch.
I got my first Citizen one to commemorate passing my first checkride.
My wife gave me the second one on our wedding day.

I sometimes wear one while flying, but they've never been useful. They both have an "E6B" dial, which is occasionally useful when flight planning (on the ground). They also do Timezones and ZULU time very well, which is nice when I arrive at a destination. But again, not much good in the air.

There is a new generation of Flight Watches that is slowly becoming popular, topped by the Garmin D2 Titanium. These are more smart-watches than the traditional "swiss-style" watches. With a built in GPS, database of waypoints, moving map, and bluetooth that can sync with my iPad and on board systems, its basically a mini-glass display on your wrist. Variations run from about \$400 to \$900, so they aren't cheap. I have the Garmin D2 Bravo watch, and there is a D2 Charlie with even more features. A "D2 Delta" variant is likely in the works. They are pretty incredible in their capabilities.

I plan my route on my iPad, sync it over to my watch, and turn on the watch GPS slightly before takeoff. When flying a steam-cockpit, having GPS navigation, ground speed, altitude and a few other features on my wrist is extremely convenient.

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I prefer analogue over digital for the at a glance interpretive readability. My Revue Thommen Airspeed chronograph quartz has been utilized for dead reckoning (it does splits) and overall flight timing for 10 years. Light, thin, tough and practical. The battery last 2 years and I have it serviced regularly. Wearing it on the inside of my left wrist incorporates it easily into my scan. If it had a GMT hand and tritrium lume I would consider it to be perfect.

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Many do, but not for a different reason: many (not all) pilots are very well paid but have limited possibilities (time constraints, limited vacation, location and so on) to spend the earned money. Hence the expensive watches, regardless of their merit to the actual piloting.

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    $\begingroup$ Pilots are very well paid? I've never heard that assertion! $\endgroup$ – dotancohen Sep 17 '15 at 12:11
  • $\begingroup$ @dotancohen Everything once happens for the first time:-) I heard this very assertion from a pilot explaining why doesn't want a pilot's watch. $\endgroup$ – Pavel Sep 17 '15 at 13:40
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    $\begingroup$ I'd appreciate if the downvoter left a comment as to what's wrong with my answer. Thank you. $\endgroup$ – Pavel Sep 18 '15 at 19:53
  • $\begingroup$ Most pilots are not very well paid and even if they were time constraints would not keep them from buying an expensive watch. I assure you, from experience it does not take very long to buy an expensive watch. $\endgroup$ – Dave Mar 7 '17 at 14:32
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    $\begingroup$ @Dave Well, the first part really depends on your locale and on what you consider well paid. In Europe, most pilots are well paid indeed. As to the second part, that is exactly what I mean. $\endgroup$ – Pavel Mar 8 '17 at 6:49
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Im a professional pilot, and i do wear mechanical swiss watches all the time, specially my IWC Big Pilot, Breitling Navitimer, Chronomat and the Zenith Pilot. A reliable watch is a need for any pilot (since flights are always schedule-based). But wear a expensive swiss watch is a matter of style and affordability. Since im from a family of pilots for generations, the pilot's watch is like a heritage to us. The watch is the pilot's jewel (since the pioneers like S.Dumont, Louie Blériot, until the famous pilots like John Travolta, the Red Bull Racer pilots, the astronauts...those distinguished pilots always wears a good watch). But since a jewel is just a matter of looks (and affordability) my coleagues pilots wear mostly citizens brand and other watches (beause the luxury swiss watches are too expensive). But they always wear some good (dependable) watch.

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Among commercial pilots its not really common to see stuff like Breitlings etc. What they need is something accurate, maybe with multiple time zones and not too expensive. Most Casios, Seikos and Citizens have the attributes I mention above so you see a fair bit of them.

Most pilots I know like to go out and see a bit of the city they're in (have a meal etc) when they have a layover. Wearing an expensive watch in an unfamiliar city is not really a smart thing to do. Also at some airports you have to remove your watch when you go thru security.. that's just another opportunity to lose one. Staying in hotels is another issue, if you're going down to the pool you have to remember to put the watch in the safe..and remember to take it out again when you leave for your flight!

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