Flight club: Fly first class with these 5 upscale pilot’s chronographsD.C. Hannay
During the golden age of air travel, all seats on a plane were pretty much first-class seats. At the dawn of intercontinental flight, travellers dressed for the occasion, and the experience was much more genteel, even elegant, especially when compared with today’s post-apocalyptic hellscape. Sadly, modern flying has become a soul-crushing exercise, with stressed-out travellers crammed together like so many hapless tinned fish.
In the same way that civilised flight is something of a rarity, so is a watch on the wrist of a pilot. Akin to a dive watch’s redundancy in a world where dive computers exist, a pilot’s watch is something of an affectation, a nod to an idealised memory of the Jet Age future. But before the advent of computerised cockpit instrumentation, a timepiece was compulsory, relied on for a number of functions. Most useful of all were chronographs, which could calculate vital details including airspeed and fuel consumption. So as a throwback to that more refined age, here are some of my favourite modern-day pilot’s chronos.
Zenith – Pilot Big Date Flyback
Freshly released at 2023’s Watches & Wonders, Zenith has impressed with their reinvented Pilot lineup, which includes both time/date models and chronos, each available in either steel or black ceramic. And it’s this iteration, the Pilot Big Date Flyback in ceramic, that’s punched my ticket. The black microblasted ceramic case is thoroughly more modern than the antique look of its predecessor, with broad lugs and a smooth matte finish. The horizontally corrugated black dial recalls aircraft fuselage panels, and a jumping big date display sits just above 6. Zenith has long been known for their movement prowess, and the twin register flyback chrono is powered by their in-house El Primero 3652, with a 60 hour power reserve. The tactical look goes with almost anything, and includes two quick-release rubber straps in black and khaki green.
Breitling – Navitimer 1959 Edition in platinum
The original Navitimer is an unimpeachable legend among pilot’s chronographs, with its slide rule bezel helping to make its bones with aviators, and Breitling delighted fans with their Re-Edition of the 806 several years back. It was a virtual one-to-one of the 1959 version, down to the number of beads on the bezel’s edge, and Breitling has released two precious metal versions since, including a red gold version, and this Navitimer 1959 Edition in platinum. This limited run of 59 keeps nearly all the features of the steel version, including the 41mm diameter and hand-wound COSC-certified Caliber B09 movement, but shows off with its case rendered in platinum. The other main difference is the deep blue dial, matched with a luxe blue alligator strap with white stitching. Still, it’s an authentic experience, albeit one with just a bit extra.
IWC – Pilot’s Watch Chronograph 41 Top Gun Oceana
IWC is rightly known for their broad range of aviation-themed timepieces, including the Big Pilot’s and Mark series, but their chronograph range spits some real horological fire, with an ever-growing lineup that includes their innovative coloured ceramic variants. Newly minted at 2023’s Watches & Wonders, the Pilot’s Watch Chronograph 41 Top Gun Oceana sees it take flight in a snappy, matte-finished Navy blue, perfect for the would-be fighter pilot in all of us. Getting all those colours just right is something of an obsession for IWC, the result of many hours of trial and error to reach the desired hue. The 41.9mm blue case is complemented by the eye-popping white-on-blue dial, and the textile inlay rubber strap brings a weekend-worthy denim look. The 69380 Calibre autowinding movement has 33 jewels, a 48 hour power reserve, and runs at a ultra-smooth 4Hz. The whole package is a supersonic take on an already well-regarded classic.
Breguet – Type XXI 3817
If you’re a fan of the classics, you’ll love the achingly beautiful Breguet Type XXI, especially in this elegant slate-coloured dial. This 42mm steel-cased model conjures up visions of the Type 20 from 1954, with its vintage-look lumed markers and triple-register dial layout. The steel bezel adds to the look of a bygone era, but a modern concession comes in the form of the autowinding 584 Q/2 movement. A deep brown padded calfskin leather strap with contrast stitching completes the look, pairing perfectly with a well-worn aviator jacket. And if you happen to find yourself bailing out due to engine failure, the Type XXI is water resistant to 100 metres, something I wouldn’t gamble on with a vintage version.
Blancpain – Air Command Red Gold
Far less well-known than their underwater icon, the Fifty Fathoms, Blancpain has another significant model with some real aviation history, the Air Command, first developed for the French Ministry of Defense in the late ‘50s. The modern version is, of course, stunningly executed, and available in steel, titanium, and this lovely blue-dialled version in red gold. It sports a dual-register flyback chrono powered by the automatic F388B movement, along with a ceramic two-way bezel. The overall look is supremely balanced, devastatingly handsome, and as an added bonus, you can specify either a 42.5mm or 36.2mm case, the smaller size a real rarity among chronographs.