The Best Pilot’s Watches at Every Budget

They're bold, legible and extremely versatile. And you don't have to be a pilot to rock one.

October 25, 2022 9:16 am
Three of the best pilot's watches on an orange background

In a world in which most of us spend the majority of our time glued to computer screens, the idea of a watch designed for a specific purpose — a “tool watch” — is an attractive one, forming as it does a (somewhat tenuous) connection to a generation in which people had to, you know, actually make stuff with their hands, fight bad guys, rescue damsels in distress…whatever. Pilot’s watches in particular hold a special kind of allure.

But what, pray tell, is a pilot’s watch, and what is it used for — especially in 2022, when transatlantic flights all but fly themselves? (I don’t actually know if that’s true, but I absolutely love the idea of being whisked off to some foreign clime by Skynet.) 

Once, many decades ago, a watch designed specifically for fighter jockeys, flyboys, barnstormers, and airmen/women was a crucial piece of kit. These timepieces were used for navigation, calculating fuel consumption, timing legs, and, perhaps most crucially, signaling to attractive people in the pub back in your small English hamlet that you were in the RAF, thus helping you to get laid. 

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Ditch the Apple Watch, please. And the fancy dive watch, too, actually.

Now? Not so much. Pilots do still tend to wear watches, but you can bet that the folks using their Navitimer’s slide rule bezel to make on-the-fly, life-and-death computations are few and far between. (And they probably all work for Georges Kern at Breitling.) These days, a pilot’s watch stands for legibility, heritage, and the particular brand of (hopefully non-toxic) masculinity that we all yearn for — the type that involved heroics, rather than sitting in your overpriced office chair for 12 hours a day, cheating on your employer with YouTube.

Here, we’re going to examine some of the best modern pilot’s watches. Some of these are based on historical models, while some are relatively new designs. And because a key ingredient to a good pilot’s watch is legibility, each should make for wonderful wristwear regardless of whether or not you’re scheduled for a bombing run over enemy territory at 2100. 

Key Pilot’s Watch Features

Pay attention to the following when selecting the watch that’ll accompany you into the cockpit:

Robustness: As you’ll see, a pilot’s watch needs to be able to withstand intense g-forces, temperature differentials, and, possibly, getting ejected from a cockpit and ending up in a field somewhere…hopefully attached to a wrist. 

Legibility: A pilot’s watch needs to be highly legible — meaning, a pilot needs to be able to get a picture of the time with even the quickest glance. That’s why it’s generally best to do away with all superfluous ornamentation. 

Size: Pilot’s watches are one category in which size — due to the aforementioned legibility factory — really does matter. While there are well known examples of smaller pilot’s watches, a slightly (or massively) larger case and dial really does help if you’re actually flying with your watch.

Reliability: Sure, you could argue the same needs to be true of field or dive watches — and you’d be right. But regardless of whether the watch is mechanical or quartz-powered, it needs to be reliable, which means it needs to be well built. Don’t skimp on price.

Operability: Ever wonder why so many vintage (and modern) pilot’s watches have those oversized “onion” crowns? That’s so you can grab ‘em with gloved hands. Your watch needs to be easy to use while flying a plane — otherwise, what’s the point? 

Anti-magnetism: While this is less crucial today, vintage pilot’s watches such as the “B-Uhren” designed for the Luftwaffe during WWII and the MK 11 designed for the RAF in the late 1940s were produced with soft iron cages around the movements to prevent magnetic interference from instrumentation and engines. 

The Best Pilot’s Watches

Marathon Pilot's Watch on Orange background

Marathon Pilot’s Navigator

This purpose-built offering from longtime military supplier Marathon has to be one of the best buys in watches for under $500. Designed at the request of personnel from Kelly Air Force Base in 1986, this fibershell-cased, quartz-powered watch was made to take on serious G’s and pressure differentials. With its 12-hour/timing bezel, it’s perfectly suited for simple timing tasks as well as for navigation, while its dial uses tritium tubes for consistent legibility in low-light situations. (The author once used one of these for several days of field exercises in the military and it performed like a charm. And it’s still got mud in the bezel indices.)

  • Diameter: 41mm
  • Movement: ETA FØ6 quartz
  • Functions: Time; 12-hour bezel; date (optional)
  • Power Reserve: N/A
Hamilton Pilot's Watch on orange background

Hamilton Khaki Aviation Pilot Pioneer Mechanical 

Simple is often best. Such is certainly the case with this streamlined offering from Hamilton, the American-founded, Swiss-owned maker of affordable watches within the Swatch Group. Based upon the W10 issued to the Royal Air Force in the 1970s, the Khaki Aviation Pilot Pioneer Mechanical features a matte black, time-only dial with ample lume — and nothing more. Housed in a barrel-shaped case and fitted to a grey NATO strap, it’s powered by a hand-wound movement with an impressive 80 hours of power reserve, and even retains its original diameter of 36mm.

  • Diameter: 36mm
  • Movement: Hamilton H-50 (ETA 2801-2 base) automatic
  • Functions: Time
  • Power Reserve: 80 hours
Laco Pilot's Watch on orange background

Laco Original Pilot Watch Kempten 

Some are no doubt uncomfortable with the idea of wearing a contemporary timepiece based upon a Luftwaffe-used design, but the fact remains that the B-Uhren has become a pilot’s watch classic, and a staple of the tool watch universe. Laco was one of the five makers of the original 55mm watches — this modern version retains the hand-wound design and the “Type A” dial with 5-minute and 12-hour Arabic indices, but slims down the case to a more wearable 39mm. (There are also 42mm and 45mm versions available.) With its riveted leather strap, oversized onion crown and brushed steel case, it’s highly reminiscent of the wartime original.

  • Diameter: 39mm
  • Movement: Laco 210 (Sellita SW 210 base) hand-wound
  • Functions: Time
  • Power Reserve: 42 hours
Olech Wajs Pilot's Watch on an orange background
Olech Wajs

Ollech & Wajs OW P-104 S

If you dig the Breitling Navitimer’s slide rule aesthetic but prefer a smaller case size, then the P-104 from Ollech & Wajs may be the watch for you. This relatively small Swiss outfitter once made notable pilot’s and dive watches that became popular with soldiers, though it largely ceased operations in the 1980s. Now under new ownership, Ollech & Wajs has resumed production and begun developing models based upon its vintage designs. The P-104 includes various scales for calculation of distance, speed, range, etc, but it’s the impressive build quality — with 300m of water resistance and a fantastic bracelet — that helps this pilot’s watch stand out from the crowd. 

  • Diameter: 39.5mm
  • Movement: ETA 2824-2 automatic
  • Functions: Time: slide rule bezel; date
  • Power Reserve: 38 hours
Junghan's Pilot's Watch

Junghans Meister Pilot

You’re gazing at what has to be one of the coolest pilot’s watches ever devised. Based upon a model from the 1950s, the Meister Pilot by German brand Junghans ticks all the boxes: It’s got an oversized case and dial to make for easier registering of the time; it boasts a dual-register chronograph and a highly grippable 60-minute bezel for timing calculations; and it features an automatic, column wheel-equipped chronograph movement for smooth, reliable operation. Attractive yet subdued, this is a somewhat left-of-center choice that nevertheless could make for a wonderful everyday watch. 

  • Diameter: 43mm
  • Movement: Junghans Calibre J880.4 (ETA 2824-2/Dubois Depraz 2030) automatic
  • Functions: Time; dual-register chronograph 
  • Power Reserve: 38 hours
Longines Pilot's Watch

Longines Avigation BigEye

Based upon a timepiece with somewhat mysterious origins that was purchased for the Longines museum, the Avigation BigEye — so called for its oversized 30-minute counter at 3 o’clock — is a beautiful example of a pilot’s watch that perfectly fulfills its design remit: Highly legible with its black dial and Super-LumiNova lume, it offers a triple-register chronograph without mucking up the dial. Well sized at 41mm without being overly large or uncomfortable, it’s powered by a reliable, automatic Swiss movement and makes use of an anti-reflective crystal. In short, you’d be hard pressed to tell this isn’t a vintage watch, but you still get all the modern fixings. Who can argue with that? 

  • Diameter: 41mm
  • Movement: Longines L688.2 (ETA A08.L01) automatic
  • Functions: Time; triple-register chronograph 
  • Power Reserve: 66 hours
Bell & Ross Pilot's watch on an orange background
Bell & Ross

Bell & Ross BR 03-92 

Established in 1992, Bell & Ross timepieces were originally made by Sinn, a famed German designer of some of the world’s best tool watches. Inspired by the design of fighter cockpit dashboard instruments, they have since become icons in their own right, adopted by pilots of the French Air Force for use in the skies. With its square, black ceramic case, simple, highly legible dial with oversized, lumed hands and indices, and ultra-comfortable, black rubber strap, the BR 03 has transcended its trendy origins to become a modern classic. Though there are more versions of this handsome timepiece that one can shake a stick at, one can’t go wrong with the original matte black iteration.

  • Diameter: 42mm
  • Movement: Bell & Ross BR-CAL.32 (Sellita SW300-1a) automatic 
  • Functions: Time; date
  • Power Reserve: 38 hours
IWC Pilot's Watch

IWC Pilot’s Watch Mark XX

IWC set the benchmark for pilot’s watches with its designs from the 1930s and 1940s. In 1948, it was one of two companies — the other being Jaeger-LeCoultre — that fulfilled the tender for the famed Mark 11, the watch that would equip RAF pilots for several decades. That model’s successor is the contemporary Mark series, the latest iteration of which, the Mark XX, features an in-house movement with an impressive 120 hours of power reserve, a well sized 40mm case, and IWC’s famous legibility. And while you can get one on a steel bracelet, the leather strap variant is certainly the more classic choice.

  • Diameter: 40mm
  • Movement: IWC Calibre 32111 automatic
  • Functions: Time; date
  • Power Reserve: 120 hours
Breitling Navitimer Pilot's Watch on an orange background

Breitling Navitimer B01 Chronograph 43

In 1952, Will Breitling designed a watch that has since become lore amongst pilots. The original Navitimer featured multiple scales in the form of a slide-rule bezel that allowed pilots to calculate fuel consumption, navigation, and more. In 1954, the watch was adopted by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) as the organization’s official timepiece, an endorsement that gave it widespread and lasting appeal. Though flight computers have long since replaced the need for analog calculations, no one can deny the continued cool of the Navitimer. 

  • Diameter: 43mm
  • Movement: Breitling B01 hand-wound
  • Functions: Time; slide rule bezel; triple-register chronograph; date
  • Power Reserve: 70 hours
Rolex GMT Master II Pilot's Watch on an Orange background

Rolex GMT-Master II

You probably know the story by now: Pan Am approached Rolex with a request for a watch that could be worn by its air crews, and Rolex delivered the GMT Master in 1954. The original was so-called because it was used to display both local time and GMT time using its fourth hand — which was slaved to the main time with a 12-hour offset — and 24-hour bezel. The contemporary versions, however, feature an independently adjustable local hour hand for quick setting upon landing in a new time zone. Available in many different colors and materials, the GMT Master II is perhaps the most famous pilot’s watch in the world — though few today register it as such. 

  • Diameter: 40mm
  • Movement: Rolex Calibre 3285 automatic
  • Functions: Time; second time zone; date
  • Power Reserve: 70 hours

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