Chronograph Wristwatches 100 Years of Pilot's Watch History

Pilot's Watches from the Early Days of Aviation

A pilot's watch is, as the name suggests, a watch for aviators. Nowadays, wristwatches are used, but in the early days of aviation, pocket watches were used.

The American Wright Brothers succeeded in the first powered flight in human history on December 17, 1903. The pocket watch worn by Orville Wright at the time could be considered the first pilot's watch in history. However, the flight distance was 36.6m and the flight time was only 12 seconds, so there may not have been time to take out the watch and use it.

Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont asked Cartier to create a watch that would allow him to check the time without having to take it out of his pocket. This was the birth of the Santos, the first pilot's watch in the form of a wristwatch. He then made the first powered flight in Europe on October 22, 1906, at a height of 3m and a distance of approximately 60m.

Over the next few years, aircraft would evolve rapidly. On July 25, 1909, Louis Blériot of France successfully crossed the English Channel in his homemade aircraft, the Louis Blériot. Also in the same year, Louis-Charles Breguet, a direct descendant of the genius watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet, produced the Breguet Type 1 aircraft, which set a new speed record in 1911. Breguet's high-performance aircraft were deployed in combat for the first time in World War I, but even at that time most pilots still used pocket watches.

The remarkable evolution of pilot's watches

After World War I, wristwatches also rapidly evolved in step with aircraft. Charles Lindbergh achieved a solo non-stop flight across the Atlantic in May 1927. Two years later, Longines released the Weems Second Setting Watch, based on an idea from US Navy Captain Weems. Then, in 1931, based on the idea for an aviation wristwatch born from the exchange between Lindbergh and Colonel Weems, Longines produced the Hour Angle Watch. This watch was a full-fledged pilot's watch with GPS functionality, which allowed the pilot to know his/her current location by combining GMT, solar altitude, and observations using a sextant.

During World War II, the German Air Force used extra-large watches with a diameter of 55 mm called the "B-Uhr" (Beobachteruhr, or observation watch), as well as chronographs made by Hanhart and Glashütte.

In the 1940s in Japan, Seiko produced the "astronomical observation clock" with a diameter of just under 50 mm, which had the function of determining direction and time, and the pocket watch chronograph "Second Clock Type 1", which were used as equipment for aviators.

After the Second World War ended, wristwatches entered an era of new development and widespread use, which also meant a breakthrough for pilot watches.

First, in 1942, Breitling released the Chronomat, a chronograph equipped with a rotating slide rule. In 1952, the Navitimer was born, which was equipped with a 12-hour counter and allowed for more advanced calculations. In 1954, Breguet delivered the Type XX (Twenty) chronograph to the French Naval Aviation Service (commonly known as Aeronavale), which featured a flyback mechanism that allowed timekeeping to be restarted instantly by pressing a push button.

The Rolex GMT Master, released in 1954, is a watch that is different from these military pilot watches. This model, with its universal time display mechanism, was extremely popular with commercial airline pilots. In 1969, Omega also released the Flightmaster, which was also equipped with a GMT function, and was also popular with commercial pilots. However, up until this time, all pilot chronographs used manual winding movements.

The perfect aviation chronograph

Chronographs equipped with automatic movements first appeared in 1969. The three earliest automatic chronographs were the Chronomatic (caliber) jointly produced by Breitling, Heuer and Hamilton, Zenith's El Primero, and Seiko's Five Sports Speed ​​Timer (caliber 61 series).

Later, in 1972, Lemania developed the automatic movement "Caliber 1340". In 1973, Valjoux's "Caliber 7750" appeared. In 1978, Lemania's "Caliber 5100" was installed in the Porsche Design "Military Chronograph" and was adopted by NATO forces and the United Arab Emirates Air Force.

In 1984, Breitling released a new model of the Chronomat, which used the automatic movement "Valjoux 7750". At the same time, in 1985, Breitling developed the innovative chronograph "Aerospace" equipped with a quartz movement. With the emergence of these models, accurate and shock-resistant quartz models became the mainstream of pilot watches alongside automatic models, and continue to do so to this day.

Hamilton's Rise

In the early days of aviation, Hamilton not only promoted its railroad watches, which were making great strides, but also the accuracy and reliability of its pilot watches. Advertisements from that time showed aircraft flying over the Rocky Mountains and touted the fact that Hamilton's pilot watches had been adopted as the official timepieces for regular airmail. Richard Byrd's successful flight across the Arctic in 1926 was also mentioned in the text.

The appeal of the Frenchman Louis Blériot's homemade aircraft, the Blériot

When Louis Blériot of France successfully flew across the English Channel in his homemade aircraft, the Blériot, the watch he used was made by Zenith. In honor of this, the El Primero Pilot Chronograph was released at Baselworld in 2011.