The Best Pilot's Watches at Every Budget
By Oren Hartov
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. 
Key Pilot’s Watch Features
The Best Pilot’s Watches
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.)
Marathon Pilot’s Navigator
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.
Hamilton Khaki Aviation Pilot Pioneer Mechanical 
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.
Laco Original Pilot Watch Kempten 
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. 
Ollech & Wajs OW P-104 S
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. 
Junghans Meister Pilot
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? 
Longines Avigation BigEye
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.
Bell & Ross BR 03-92 
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.
IWC Pilot’s Watch Mark XX
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. 
Breitling Navitimer B01 Chronograph 43
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. This article was featured in the InsideHook newsletter. Sign up now.
Rolex GMT-Master II
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