The simplest definition of a Pilot watch is any watch suitable to be worn in flight. That doesn’t really answer the question of what a Pilot watch actually is though, does it?
One of the reasons that the definition for a Pilot watch is so vague is that the requirements for what constitutes a Pilot’s watch are ambiguous and fluid. Traditionally, Pilot watches were just big faces with contrasting numbers and indices so they could be easily read while flying.
If you think keeping your eyes on the road is important while driving, maintaining your gaze to what’s in front of you is all the more crucial when you’re cruising at 30,000 feet. As such, the big Pilot’s watch was made to be easily legible in a myriad of conditions, even in dark stormy skies, or nighttime. An aviator watch must be easily read even at a glance, which is why large faces with bold numerals and stark contrast are so commonly associated with Pilot watches.
Typically, choosing a Pilot watch over a standard luxury watch boils down to individual preferences and needs. At CJ Charles, we have a myriad of IWC watches for sale, as this watch brand is known for its premium Pilot watch options. We also offer pre owned IWC watches, as the elite brand also specializes in limited edition watches - making their timepieces a true rarity. Read our articles answering the questions, “should I buy an IWC watch,” and, “IWC vs Rolex,” for more information on the brand.
Even though a Pilot’s watch is one of the more ambiguous terms within the watch making industry, Pilot watches do maintain some semblance of an “industry standard.” Here are the five key distinctions that all pilot’s watches must have:
A Large Winding Crown
This feature of the Pilot aviator watch is now somewhat dated as it was originally a feature necessitated by the fact that almost all pilots wore gloves. Pilots needed a larger winding crown so that they could grab the winding crown even with their thick pilot’s gloves on. A good example of this type of timepiece is a Flieger watch, which is a type of aviation watch that rose to popularity during WWII. While modern pilots very rarely wear gloves, the iconic nature of the large winding crown has stuck around, making it a feature aspect of the modern Pilot watch. Aside from serving as a necessity during the early days of flying, a larger winding crown also helps modern pilots quickly adjust the time on their watch should it not be equipped with a rotating bezel...more on that later.
Luminosity (aka Glow-In-The-Dark)
The cockpit can be a dark environment, especially while flying at night, or if traveling through turbulent/stormy skies. As a result, pilots needed a watch that could see even in a dark environment. The Pilot watch was one of the first styles of watches to implement glow-in-the-dark technology, like luminous hands, in an effort to give pilots the features they needed for safe flying. While some early versions of Pilot watches used radioactive elements to achieve luminosity, now safer methods are used to achieve the “glow-in-the-dark” functionality that has come to be directly associated with a standard Pilot Watch
This one point encapsulates several distinguishing factors about a Pilot watch but they all fall under the same umbrella of being easily readable with a quick glance. First, a Pilots watch must have a large legible face with an open, large dial layout. Second, the indexes, minute and hour hands, and numerals must be in stark contrast to the face of the watch. Finally, the bezel needs to include additional markings to help pilots calculate and adjust for things like wind direction and airspeed.
Greenwich Mean Time is the worldwide standard against which all other time zones are calculated. Being that one of the biggest indicators of where you are in the sky is time, and being that a Pilot’s only concept of time is their watch, the inclusion of GMT is an absolute necessity for a Pilot’s watch. Using GMT (as it applies to airspeed and a particular longitude) a pilot can calculate exactly where they are on earth. This is an indispensable tool in a Pilot’s arsenal making GMT a must for any watch that dares classify itself as a Pilot’s watch.
While a watch can certainly be classified or categorized as a Pilot’s watch without one or two of the aforementioned characteristics.
Aside from the unique specificities that most Pilot watches employ, there are many supplemental features that are common to many Pilot watches across multiple brands. While these features are not mandatory for a watch to be considered a Pilot’s watch, Luxury watch brands often include many of the following elements in an effort to appease their clientele.
Here are some alternative functions that many Pilot watches include:
A Rotating Bezel
Also called a slide rule bezel, this feature helps with time zone adjustment as it allows a pilot to adjust for differences in time zone by turning the bezel instead of resetting the watch. Typically a pilot would need to reset their watch each time they cross the threshold of a new time zone in the air but with a rotating bezel, a pilot can simply turn the bezel to compensate for the difference. This is a much more efficient method of keeping time while flying allowing a pilot the flexibility to fully reset the watch once they land.
A pilot’s chronograph can be used to calibrate airplane functions, calculate airspeed, and even compensate for wind direction. While a chronograph is simply just a stopwatch it can be a helpful tool in the air, especially for a pilot flying solo. More specifically, the flyback chronograph is the chronograph of choice for a Pilot wrist watch. While other chronograph watch styles require three presses to stop, reset, and start, the flyback chronograph only requires two presses of a button as the second push sends the dial back to zero and restarts the stopwatch automatically. We’ve also written in detail about how to use a chronograph watch on our blog.
Long before auto-pilot on aircrafts, keeping your hands on the controls was a necessity for survival. For this reason, a watch that fell off during flight posed a direct threat to the safety of the Pilot and his crew. There was no fumbling around in the cockpit for the instrument, which meant the watch had to be trustworthy in its ability to stay secured to the pilot’s wrist. Rugged straps like leather strap options were the obvious choice for ensuring Pilot watches remained secured and fastened...just like your seatbelt! While a leather strap is the most popular choice for a Pilot watch, other high-end materials like fabric are also used with regularity. Sapphire crystal face coverings are also employed frequently in Pilot watchmaking due to their anti-scratch properties.
The truth is, every luxury watchmaker has their own take on what does or does not constitute a Pilot’s watch. For the most part, watchmakers across the industry stay within the guidelines, or close to them, of the industry standard as outlined above. While Pilot watches can range in complexity and variance, the distinctions listed above typically indicate that a watch is suitable for a pilot while flying.
If you were really looking to simplify the definition of a Pilot watch into a few tangible aspects we would say that a Pilot watch is a field watch that must be precisely accurate and ruggedly durable, all while offering high visibility in any condition.
The Pilot watch is a staple of any luxury watch brand, and while the specifications of each Pilot watch vary from watch to watch, each luxury brand Pilot watch is equipped to handle the most extreme circumstances. Pilot watches that aren’t effective have no place in the air, and watch manufacturers understand this better than anyone.
If you find yourself particularly interested in a Pilot watch, check out the selection at CJ Charles. Our dedication to the most trusted brands ensures that your next Pilot watch will do everything you need it to from the cockpit to the cocktail lounge post flight. For more information on Pilot watches, and which Pilot watch is best suited for you, contact our team of specialists at CJ Charles IWC boutique in San Diego, La Jolla, or Del Mar!