Forever higher – aviation watches

Watches have always had close links to the world of aviation, with many designs that have become legends, and new products every year. This article was published in the magazine Hors Ligne, May 2015.

hors ligne 147 May 2015
From the magazine Hors Ligne n° 147, May 2015

Origins of the pilot’s watch: Cartier and Santos-Dumont

There are several candidates for the first wristwatch in the world, such as Breguet’s watch delivered to Caroline Murat in 1812, but there is no doubt that it was Louis Cartier who established the popularity of wristwatches, as opposed to the pocket watches that were almost universally used up until then. Brazilian-born pioneer aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont was a friend of Cartier’s, and asked him to make a watch that he could wear on his wrist so that he could read the time without taking his hand off the control column. That was in 1904, when Santos-Dumont had already become a personality in Paris for his flying exploits, and his eccentric dress style, with high-collared shirts and Panama hat, became popular in high society. The wristwatch that Louis Cartier made for him, with leather strap and buckle, also became fashionable. The Santos is still part of Cartier’s range.

Cartier and the Santos-Dumont watch
Left, a modern version of the Santos-Dumont by Cartier. Right-hand image courtesy of

Flieger watch

The classic pilot’s watch developed in the 1930s. It had to be easily legible in the cockpit, and so simplicity was essential. Black dial, white numerals, with luminescent coating for easy reading in the dark, a large conical crown for adjustment while wearing gloves: these are the features of the B-Uhr watches supplied to the Luftwaffe by A. Lange & Söhne, IWC, Wempe, Laco, and Stowa, and they live on today in watches by several brands. The “Beobachtungs-uhren,” or observation watches, are characteristic for the triangle at the 12 o’clock position, sometimes with two dots at the apex. Watches of this type are still made by German brands Mühle Glashütte, Tourby, Stowa and Archimede. They were also made by a few high-end brands such as Glashütte Original, but in today’s market, such a simple design leaves little room for the expression of brand personality and so Glashütte Original, like A. Lange & Söhne, have abandoned this area.

Stowa Flieger Klassik 40
Stowa Flieger Klassik 40

IWC Pilots Watch Mark XVII

IWC Schaffhausen is a brand for which pilot’s watches are still an important part of their range, and the Pilots Watch Mark XVII is a perfect expression of the classic pattern. It is based on the IWC Mark II model dating back to 1936, for many years the official service watch for R.A.F. pilots and navigators. It has an automatic 30110-calibre movement with 42 hours power reserve, a soft iron anti-magnetic inner case, and central seconds hand. The date display shows three visible figures aligned vertically against a red triangular index, a reference to a cockpit panel altimeter.

IWC Pilot's Watch Mark XVII
IWC Pilot’s Watch Mark XVII

Breitling Transocean Chronograph

Many other brands celebrate the link between timekeeping and flying. Breitling run a whole squadron of aircraft, including the world’s only professional civilian flight team performing on jets. The team routinely performs sequences in which fast and powerful L-39C Albatros Czech-made twin-seater military jets fly at almost 700 km/h to within less than 3 metres one from another, reaching dizzying 8G acceleration. The Breitling Jet Team performs about fifty demonstrations a year, at air shows, Formula 1 Grand Prix races, sports events and other occasions. Equally spectacular are the Breitling Wingwalkers, in which courageous acrobats ride on the top wing of two 1940s Boeing Stearman biplanes. The technique recalls the “barnstormers,” teams of pilots and stuntmen who performed worldwide between the wars. At the Baselworld 2015 show, Breitling present their Transocean Chronograph, a piece celebrating their 1915 model in which for the first time a separate pusher was provided for chronograph operation, rather than just the crown as had previously been the case.

Breitling Transocean Chronograph 1915
Breitling Transocean Chronograph 1915

Zenith Pilot Montre d’Aéronef Type 20 GMT 1903

Zenith has an important anniversary this year: 150 years since its foundation in Le Locle in 1865, and in 2014 they celebrated another significant date with their Pilot Montre d’Aéronef Type 20 GMT 1903. The watch, part of their extensive aviation collection, celebrates the first powered flight in history by Orville Wright in 1903, and it combines an ultra-modern black DLC-coated titanium case with some characteristically period features, such as the 48 mm case size, the large crown, and generously-sized Arabic numerals on which the SuperLuminova has an antique, mottled appearance, making each watch unique. The red GMT hand is easy to adjust with the pusher at 10 o’clock. The watch, powered by the Elite 693 automatic movement providing 50 hours power reserve, is mounted on a Bund-style leather wristband, a design that dates back to the German Luftwaffe. In the days of unheated cockpits in which the temperature dropped to well below freezing, a steel caseback could be extremely painful, and so the Bund strap, with its leather base, protected the pilot’s skin. In this commemorative piece, the caseback and wristband have embossed designs celebrating Orville’s 60-metre flight and Zenith’s long history of aviation watches.

Bell & Ross BR 126 Sport Heritage GMT & Flyback

Bell & Ross is a French company specialising in watches that are often very close to cockpit instruments. Their BR 126 Sport Heritage GMT & Flyback cleverly combines two functions eminently suited to an aviation watch: the chronograph, and a second time zone, ideal for frequent fliers.

Bell & Ross Vintage BR-126 Heritage GMT Flyback
Bell & Ross Vintage BR-126 Heritage GMT Flyback

Longines Avigation Watch Type A-7

Swiss brand Longines acquired its winged hourglass logo far before man had achieved his dream of powered flight, and it turned out to be a prophetic move, because Longines have created many lovely pilot’s timepieces such as the Lindbergh Hour Angle watch designed by Charles Lindbergh, who made the first solo non-stop flight across the Atlantic in 1927, and the deliciously eccentric Avigation Watch Type A-7 in which the dial is angled with respect to the dial. It was originally made for 1930s American aviators who wore it on the inside of the wrist, so that when their hands were on the control column, the watch was perfectly visible, and the dial was aligned with the instrument panel.

Longines Avigation Watch Type A-7 ref. L2.779.4.53.0
Longines Avigation Watch Type A-7 ref. L2.779.4.53.0


In a way, aviators could be thought of as midway between men and angels, and perhaps the undying appeal of aviation-linked watches can be explained by the romantic appeal of carefree enjoyment, courage and the ever-present possibility of tragedy. Bremont is a British brand born in precisely this way, founded by Nick and Giles English following an air accident in which their father Euan was killed and Nick seriously injured. They decided to perpetuate Euan’s memory by making his hobby of restoring old clocks into a profession. Another essential ingredient of their company came from an incident in the late 1990s, when they had to force-land their 1930s biplane somewhere in France. They didn’t want any problems with the French authorities, and so they gratefully accepted the help of a farmer who hid their plane in a barn. Nick and Giles decided that they would not forget the farmer’s hospitality. His name: Antoine Bremont.

Bremont MB9
Bremont MB9

IWC and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

But perhaps the most evocative and romantic chronograph watch of all came from IWC in 2014, commemorating the last flight of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The writer had been flying since 1921, and had become famous for his books Vol de nuit (1931) and above all The Little Prince (1943). In 1944, he was not really cast in the mould of the dashing aviator, eight years over the limit for operational pilots, overweight and almost too large to squeeze into a cockpit, but nonetheless managed to secure a place in a squadron of P-38 Lightnings, where he continued his habit of reading novels while in the air, and even writing in the notebook that he always took with him in the cockpit. He took off from Corsica for a reconnaissance flight over the south of France on 31 July 1944, and never returned. Clues as to his last moments only emerged in 1998 when a fisherman found a bracelet marked with his name in the sea off Marseille; soon after, wreckage of his aircraft was discovered. IWC’s commemorative editions help keep the memory of Saint-Exupéry alive, and provide funds for the Antoine de Saint-Exupéry Foundation, a charity helping children and young people in many countries. Romanticism and precision are not all that far apart.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The day the Lunar Rover got a parking ticket

Gene’s Lunar Rover has been parked on the moon for 42 years without any particular administrative problems, but Milan is a whole different kettle of fish. On 28 October 2014, Cernan was driving the electrically-powered Lunar Rover – the one that he had driven for 35 km on the moon in 1972 – in Via Montenapoleone, Milan, when a traffic policeman pushed through the crowds, block of tickets and pencil ready, and wrote a parking ticket. But it was all fine, because the traffic policemen were there to provide security for Cernan and the vehicle, present for the inauguration of the new Omega boutique at number 16 of the famous shopping street. Cernan parked adroitly and neatly (not in “Milanese style” on the pavement), disembarked, and held up his left wrist. “This is the watch that went to the moon.”


His watch is of course an Omega Speedmaster. He said, ““The Speedmaster is the only thing we took the Moon that had no modification whatsoever – it was right off the shelf. What’s interesting about my first one is that it’s beat up, it’s never been cleaned, it’s never been repaired and to this day I can take that watch and wind it and it keeps time as well as the day I got it. And I’ve walked in space with it for two and a half hours and worn it on the Moon for over three days.”

Gene Cernan was the last human to set foot on the moon. He spent three days on the lunar surface, and when, on 14 December 1972, he climbed the ladder back into the Lunar Module, it was a poignant moment for him and for the story of man in space. As far back as 1970, NASA and President Nixon had decided to cut short the Apollo series, for which missions were planned up to number 20, in order to concentrate on the Space Shuttle and other programmes. While Apollo 17 was returning to Earth, Nixon said in a statement, “This may be the last time in this century that men will walk on the Moon.”


For Omega, the mission to a boutique in Via Montenapoleone was also a lengthy and complex task. The brand needed a larger space, and found it at number 16, when the Lorenzi family, who for decades had run a store selling knives and shaving accessories, decided to sell to Swatch Group. The boutique is a bright and pleasant space, with curving display units in light-coloured wood and plate glass. All around, the vast Omega heritage, not just watches, but jewellery, James Bond, George Clooney, and the conquest of space.

Celebrations continued in the evening, when Milan’s Science Museum (Museo della Scienza e della Tecnologia) inaugurated their new section dedicated to space. The interactive exhibition includes some original objects, including space suits and gloves, and a fragment of space rock. Eugene Cernan was accompanied on the moon by geologist Harrison Schmitt, the only scientist in the Apollo programme, but this piece of Taurus Littrow Valley was collected by Gene Cernan. In 1973, President Nixon gave it to the Italian government, which in turn gave it to the Science Museum in Milan.

I had the opportunity to speak both to Stephen Urquhart, President of Omega, and Gene Cernan. I couldn’t resist asking Mr. Urquhart about Omega and its privileged position as the only watch officially chosen by NASA to accompany manned space missions. “The watch was chosen as a backup, and it was only towards the end of preparations for the Apollo missions that the people at NASA realized that they needed a watch of this type. In Apollo 13 the watch played a pivotal role in timing the engine activation necessary to get them back on course. They used it to perfection, it wasn’t an easy thing to do under that stress.”
Omega’s close connection to the exploration of space is an important marketing tool, and today this is accompanied by other modern techniques such as product placement. I asked Mr. Urquhart about the significance of films such as Casino Royale and Skyfall.

“You mention the names of the films, I mention the name of the character, Mr. Bond. James Bond, even when the films are not that great, has an aura about him. It’s striking that even though the films are set in the present, the actual story dates back to the same era as the race to the moon, in the 1960s. If you buy a watch today, you are looking for sophistication, efficiency, pleasure, and James Bond is the same thing. James Bond is a story and a dream, and mechanical watches are also a dream and this is why they are coming back so strongly. They have that emotion.”

Gene Cernan is an Omega ambassador, and he could also be described as a motivational speaker, such is his enthusiasm. His message to young people is: “The dreamers of today are the doers of tomorrow, they will make the impossible possible. It happened in my life. I lived on the moon for three days.” He described how his initial dream, as a youngster born in 1934, was simply to fly planes off an aircraft carrier, and how one day he received an unexpected call saying that the navy was interested in recommending him to NASA for the space programme, and would he like to volunteer? “If I would have ever told people that I would have thought that ten years after I graduated, I would be walking in space around the world, they would have put me in an asylum. So I’ve always said, nothing is impossible.”

Gene described his relationship with his Omega watches. “This is the watch I flew in space with three times. I wore two watches, one for timing, and the other one I set for the time in Houston, Texas. I would look at the earth, and I would think, ‘the sun is rising on Texas. My daughter has gotten up, eaten her breakfast, she’s catching the school bus.’ Then I would look at the watch later, and it would be 7, 8 or 9 o’clock in Texas, and I would say, ‘hey, my daughter is eating dinner, done her homework, saying her prayers and going to bed.’ That watch was my security, like Linus’ blanket. It was a window through which I could see into my real world.”

At the press conference for the presentation of the new Space and Astronomy section of the Science Museum in Milan, sponsored by Omega, journalist and curator Gianni Caprara asked Gene whether he thought the next destination, Mars, was a real possibility, and whether he would go. To resounding applause, Gene Cernan replied, in his characteristic Texan drawl, “I’d leave for Mars tomorrow morning!”

This article was first published on, click here to read it there

Read more about the new area of Space and Astronomy at the Science Museum in Milan
Read more about the Omega Speedmaster and other chronograph watches