Flying Time

“A strong cold wind blew from the north. Puddles of water throughout the camp [from recent rains] were covered with ice. By 10 o’clock, the wind [at 27 miles an hour] was as brisk as ever, [but] we decided we had better get the machine out and attempt a flight.”

It was the morning of Dec. 17, 1903, and the circumstances, as described here by Orville Wright, didn’t seem auspicious enough to start anything, let alone change the course of history. But on that cold, windy day 100 years ago on a sandy hill at Kitty Hawk, N.C., the Wright brothers fulfilled a millennia-old dream of mankind, flying 120 feet in 12 seconds in the first successful controlled powered flight. The event launched the age of aviation, and with it, the era of the wristwatch.

In this centennial year of that flight, it’s worth noting how essential timekeeping has been to aviation from the first moments of those tentative flights. The Wrights used a stopwatch—possibly Orville’s—in a set-up designed to simultaneously measure the duration of their flights (“from the time the machine started to move forward to the time it stopped,” said Orville), wind gusts, and propeller speeds. But it was a wealthy Brazilian flyer and a French jeweler who advanced the nascent era of wristwatches and created the first true pilot’s watch.

First (wristwatch) in flight. Alberto Santos-Dumont, son of a Brazilian coffee plantation owner, was a daring aviation pioneer, acclaimed internationally for such achievements as building the first light plane, making the first publicly timed heavier-than-air flight, and winning the 1901 Deutsch Prize—an early air race—flying a small dirigible around the Eiffel Tower in Paris. As he celebrated that victory at dinner with his friend, French jeweler Louis Cartier, Santos-Dumont—according to Cartier company legend—recounted how difficult it was to accurately time one’s progress and position with a pocket watch while flying, because both hands were needed on the controls. Cartier considered his friend’s problem and later designed a flat, wrist-sized, square-bezel timepiece with straps that could be secured by a small buckle and thus function on the wrist in any position.

He presented the custom-made “wrist-watch” as a gift to Santos-Dumont in 1904. The aviator was delighted and always used it when he flew.

The watch was a hit, too, with Cartier’s clients and those in Parisian high society to whom Santos proudly showed it. So, in 1907, Cartier began producing wristwatches at his Paris establishment on the Rue de la Paix, and in 1911, with his firm becoming one of the world’s first successful wristwatch companies, Cartier began selling a square watch based on the one he had made for his friend. He dubbed it the “Santos” in honor of the aviator and added its now-signature bezel screw-head motifs to evoke, he said, the rivets that held Santos-Dumont’s aircraft together.

Cartier may have called it “Santos” for another reason. Before World War I, women were the primary customers of the nascent wristwatch business; pocket watches were men’s preferred timepieces. But the endorsement by the charismatic adventurer of the air persuaded Parisian aristocracy to accept Cartier’s wristwatches for men. Today the “Santos” remains one of the brand’s best-known watches, with much the same design as that introduced a century ago. And while Santos-Dumont’s custom-made 1904 timepiece wasn’t the first wristwatch (there are various earlier claims to that title), it was certainly the world’s first pilot’s watch.

War and races. As more pioneer aviators—and governments—took to the air, wristwatches began to replace pocket watches as the pilots’ timepiece of choice. As early as 1908, Swiss watchmaker Longines made some large ones (52 mm) for the little Imperial Russian Air Corps. But it was the First World War that accelerated both the acceptance by men of wristwatches and use of wristwatches by aviators.

Thousands of men’s wristwatches were made for the European (and later American) armed forces by watch firms like Omega, Bulova, Breitling, Hamilton, Longines, Movado, IWC, and Ulysse Nardin. By war’s end, watches were widely worn by combat airmen, who used them for navigation, timing fuel consumption, and other needs.

It was also a period of changes and advances for the pilot’s watch. In 1915, Gaston Breitling, son of the founder of the Swiss watch firm of the same name, produced the first chronograph wristwatches, made specifically for pilots. And in September 1918, just before the war’s end, when American test pilot Roland Rohlfs set a world altitude record (34,610 feet), his unidentified wristwatch successfully withstood both the strain and the –47ºF temperature.

The popularity of what was called “aeronautics”—and of watches used by pilots—soared during aviation’s romantic, dangerous “barnstormer” era in the 1920s and ’30s. Across the country, the daring exploits of air show “birdmen” and former World War I “air aces,” test pilots, aviation pioneers, and airmail pilots—for whom timeliness was essential—captured the imagination of millions. Spurring these exploits were races, challenges, and prizes announced almost daily to overcome obstacles to long-distance aviation.

One of the many prizes was the Bulova Watch Prize ($1,000) offered in 1926 by Ardé Bulova, head of the Bulova Watch Co., which also gave watches to aviation pioneers. The prize was to be awarded to the first person to fly nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean. Among those who accepted the challenge—and apparently wore a wristwatch provided by Bulova on his flight—was a tall, thin former airmail pilot named Charles Lindbergh. In 1927, his 3,600-mile, 33.5-hour solo flight from New York to Paris was the first successful transatlantic flight, and it astounded and captivated the world. It also spotlighted the importance of precise timing in aviation (shortly after the flight, Lindberg praised the “accurate time” of his Bulova) and added to the popularity of wristwatches.

Bulova immediately capitalized on Lindbergh’s triumph by producing 5,000 “Lone Eagle” watches, packaged with Lindbergh’s picture. The company began selling the watches the day after Lindbergh’s landing … and sold out in just three days. Over the next few years, Bulova—whose sales doubled after Lindberg’s flight—sold 50,000 more of the timepieces, the first-ever commemorative wristwatch.

The 1930s. By the 1930s, pilot’s watches also were called “navigator watches” for their most obvious use before planes were equipped with specialized instrument panels. Lindbergh himself designed one after his historic flight and gave his sketches to a Longines director who was also interested in aeronautics. (Longines Watch Company, timekeeper of the International Aviation Association since 1923, also had officially timed Lindbergh’s 1927 flight.) The 48-mm stainless steel Longines Hour Angle Watch—which could be used to calculate longitude when used with navigational instruments—went on sale in 1932. Another pilot’s/navigator watch was released in 1937. Called the Longines Weems, it was designed by Commander Philip van

Horn Weems, USN. Pilots and navigators used it for so-called “dead reckoning”—or “Avigation”—navigation.

The 1930s saw other advances in pilot’s watches and aviation timekeeping as well, thanks to active use by aviation pioneers like Amelia Earhart—who wore a Longines, possibly the Hour Angle watch—and by professional pilots. For example, the accuracy of Hamilton watches, then one of the best-known U.S.-made brands, led several new airlines to adopt it as their official pilot’s timepiece. In both Europe and America, watchmakers strove to create timepieces unaffected by then-common cockpit problems like vibrations, magnetic fields, and extreme variations in temperature and lighting.

By the 1930s, the pilot’s watch had evolved its basic features, as seen in the 1934 Oris model—a sturdy, oversized case; a readable dial with large Arabic numbers; a large crown; luminous hands and/or markings (radium-treated in the early days) for reading in dim light or at night; and a rotating bezel for navigation, distance, or fuel consumption calculations.

The chronograph was a feature of many pilot’s watches. In 1934, Breitling gave the wrist chronograph its definitive form by adding a second return-to-zero push piece, making it possible to measure several successive short times. In 1936—the same year it became official supplier to Britain’s Royal Air Force—Breitling created a chronometer for cockpit instrument panels, the start of its long association with aircraft makers. IWC of Schaffhausen, Switzerland, another aviation watch pioneer, in 1935 unveiled its first wristwatch for pilots—the Mark IX. Shock-resistant with an antimagnetic escapement and tested at extreme temperatures, it featured a rotating glass bezel (with inlaid arrow) that was ribbed, a feature adopted by other aviator watches. Other popular watches in the late 1930s included Hanhart’s Fliegerchronograph (Pilot’s Chronograph) and Fortis’s Wandflu chronograph, whose accuracy and durability made them favorites among aviators.

War’s impact. World War II, which erupted in Asia and Europe in the 1930s, spurred improvement of pilot’s watches, because combat fliers needed sturdier, more precise timepieces. By 1940, Longines, Omega, Breitling, Movado, and IWC were supplying the Royal Air Force; Tutima, Hanhart, and IWC, among others, supplied the Luftwaffe; and—after America entered the war—Hamilton, Bulova, Elgin, Waltham, and others supplied the U.S. military, including the Army and Navy Air Corps. Hamilton alone made hundreds of thousands of watches, plus the 4992B navigation pocket watch—a timepiece considered so essential that every pilot and navigator had one.

Several pilot’s watches prized by collectors date from this period. In 1940, IWC produced a precise, massive timepiece (55-mm case, 183 grams) dubbed the “Big Pilot.” It had a large second hand, a large chunky crown (so it could be wound and operated by gloved pilots), and a long strap so it could be worn over flight suits. In 1941, Tutima produced its standard-setting Fliegerchronograph, a sophisticated, easy-to-read and -use timepiece with a 30-minute timer and optional stopwatch function. In 1942—the same year it began supplying the U.S. Air Force—Breitling introduced Chronomat, the first chronograph with a circular slide rule for complicated calculations. In 1943, Gruen began producing pilot’s watches for Pan American World Airways, which during the war flew exclusively for the United States. The watches featured 24-hour dials, sweep second hands (still unusual then), and the numbers 1 through 12 on the outside of the dial and 13 through 24 on the inner ring to accommodate military time.

Post-war changes. The post-war period saw more advances in pilot’s watches. The developments were spurred by government contracts and growing interest by consumers and amateur pilots, thanks in part to the many military pilots returning to civilian life. A number of classics, still popular with watch enthusiasts, debuted then. One was IWC’s Mark XI. Introduced in 1948, it was smaller than the pre-war Mark IX and Big Pilot, had a long second hand with stopwatch function, and was the first watch with a soft-iron inner case to protect its mechanical movement from magnetic fields. Mark XI was adopted by the Royal Air Force as its official pilot’s watch and proved so popular with buyers—including other air forces and airlines around the world—that it was produced into the 1980s.

In 1952, Breitling launched another star—the Navitimer. With its chronograph and built-in calculator, it enabled aviators to perform all necessary in-flight calculations. The Navitimer became a favorite of both professional and amateur pilots, as shown by its selection as official timepiece of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA).

In 1953, Swiss watchmaker Glycine produced Airman, a quintessential aviation watch developed in consultation with civil and military pilots. Its features included a coin edge for improved grip, luminous (tritium) dial markings, and bi-directional rotating stainless-steel bezel with brushed finish for low reflectivity and engraved 24-hour markings in black for easy reading.

Rolex, in 1954, developed its GMT Master in conjunction with Pan American Airlines. The model featured a fourth hand and adjustable 24-hour bezel, enabling pilots to know their “home” time as well as the local time of any destination in a different time zone. The GMT Master, updated over the years, continues to be a strong seller for Rolex.

Meanwhile, pilot’s watches were moving into the consumer market. The trend was driven by the glamour and prestige of aviators and flying, the growing number of commercial air travelers, and watches designed for pilots that were equally appealing to consumers. Gruen’s “Pan American” series, for example, was adapted for consumers after World War II. And the Type XX chronograph with flyback function—created for the French Air Force and Navy airmen by Swiss watchmaker Breguet—proved so popular with consumers that Breguet began producing “civilian” versions.

Space age. The dawning space age literally took pilot’s watches and aviation timekeeping to new heights. Test pilot Chuck Yeager was wearing a Rolex Oyster—the same one he wore throughout World War II—when he broke the sound barrier in a Bell X-1 in 1947. In 1960, NASA asked Bulova to incorporate the revolutionary timing mechanism of its Accutron tuning-fork electronic watch into NASA computers for the U.S. space program.

However, the first watch worn in space was Russian, not American. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who in 1961 became the first person to orbit Earth, wore a “Shturmanskie,” predecessor of the better-known “Piljoy” (“Flight”) watch of the First Moscow Watch Factory, maker of watches for Soviet pilots. In 1962, astronaut Scott Carpenter became the first American to wear a watch aboard a spacecraft when he wore a Breitling Cosmonaute—a chrono with a 24-hour dial—while piloting his Aurora 7 spacecraft for three orbits. (Alan Shepard, who piloted the first manned U.S. space flight, Freedom 7, in 1961, a month after Gagarin, reportedly refused to wear a watch because of the flight’s short duration.)

Needing a standard flight watch that was highly accurate, legible, sturdy, and reliable for use by its astronauts, NASA did extensive tests on flight chronographs of a dozen top brands. (The companies weren’t told that their watches were being tested.) In 1965, NASA declared the Omega Speedmaster Professional “flight-qualified … for all manned space missions.” It cited the watch’s ability to withstand severe tests of zero gravity, magnetic fields, extreme shocks, vibrations, and extreme temperatures; its reliability in all atmospheric conditions; and the ability of its manual-wind movement to function in weightlessness.

So, in July 1969, the Omega Speedmaster became the first watch brand worn on the moon—but it was worn by the second man to walk there, astronaut Buzz Aldrin. (The first, Neil Armstrong, had left his watch on the lunar lander to replace a malfunctioning timer.)

Astronauts and cosmonauts have used other brands, too. It was a Rolex GMT Master, for example, that astronaut Jack Schweigert used to help Apollo 13 return safely to Earth after an oxygen tank ruptured. Fortis’s Cosmonaut Chronograph, chosen after two years of testing, has been part of the official equipment of all Russian cosmonauts since 1994, while Bell & Ross timepieces have been worn by astronauts on the space stations Spacelab (U.S.) and Mir (Russia) and by NATO combat pilots.

Modern timers. The late 20th century brought significant changes to the watch business in general and to pilot’s watches specifically. Quartz movements, introduced at the start of the 1970s, replaced mechanicals as the heart of watchmaking and changed the watch industry. The quartz revolution brought new production methods, affordability, greater accuracy, and advanced technology to watchmaking, and more functions to watches, including pilot’s watches. It also changed how consumers viewed watches: They evolved from mere timekeepers to lifestyle accessories and expressions of personality, as well as gifts and status symbols. Busy work schedules and the 1990s’ focus on recreational sports and other leisure activities, including flying, created demand for affordable quartz multifunction watches, including so-called “pilot’s watches.” These “pilot’s watches” grew increasingly complex, incorporating various subdials and details, many unrelated to flying. Chronographs—once found primarily in sports and navigator watches—became an important category in watch sales and designs, becoming so pervasive that they contributed to the “sporty” look of non-sport watches.

In the late 1980s, mechanical watches and upscale watchmaking began a comeback. The revival was partly the result of watch buyers’ reaction to the ubiquitous quartz watches and partly the result of the burgeoning watch market created by the quartz revolution. In addition, the affluence of the late ’80s and ’90s meant more people could afford fine watches, including upscale pilot’s watches, both current and vintage.

Flights of fashion. The trend began with affluent collectors and auction houses, expanded to accommodate watch enthusiasts’ interest in classic timepieces, including vintage pilot’s and navigator models, and finally spread to a wider public. It was spurred by the popularity of these watches as collectibles and by consumers’ nostalgic fascination with them as reminders of bygone eras. Watchmakers at all price levels began to reissue vintage models or produce watches based on them—including those connected with flight. Examples from the 1990s included Omega’s “moon watch” commemorative, Longines’s reissue of its Lindbergh and Weems watches, and a new collection (“Avigation”) based on the latter.

During the same period, technological advances reduced professional pilots’ and navigators’ need for aviation watches (though most still have them for backup). These now are used more by nonprofessional pilots, pilot “wannabes” intrigued with aviation, and fashion-forward trendsetters, both men and women.

That isn’t surprising. Flight watches have regularly enjoyed their moments in the fashion sun—from the time of Santos-Dumont, to Lindbergh, to Breguet’s Type XX, to the replicas of “moon watches.” Since the 1980s, style setters such as athletes, film stars, and celebrities have sported eye-catching, expensive pilot’s watches on their wrists. Princess Stephanie of Monaco, for example, is a Navitimer owner. That in turn has made such watches popular as fashion statements, with leading pilot’s watch manufacturers even producing glittering versions for evening wear, such as Rolex’s $20,000 GMT Master II in gold with rubies and diamonds.

The popularity of pilot’s watches, like sport watches and chronographs, also has influenced recent watch fashions and designs, such as the current “big watch” look favored by both men and women. Many more watch companies also have capitalized on the recent demand for multifunction timepieces and military-style watches as well as the mystique of aviation. They’ve produced more advanced versions of genuine pilot’s watches, updates of vintage models, and timepieces featuring design elements of pilot’s watches for the wider public. Current examples include IWC’s new Big Pilot, Swiss Army’s Air Boss, and Hamilton’s Khaki Aviation.

As flight’s second century begins, today’s pilot’s watch and its look-alikes continue to be what the first pilot’s watches were—eye-catching symbols of aviation and technology, used by real pilots, prized by collectors, worn by those who appreciate their multifunction usefulness … and flaunted by a fashion-conscious public intrigued with the mystique of flight.