Flying high once more – how I revived my late father’s Breitling Navitimer Flying high once more – how I revived my late father’s Breitling Navitimer

Flying high once more – how I revived my late father’s Breitling Navitimer

D.C. Hannay

“Grab your jacket. We’re going flying”. As a kid, these were the words I loved to hear. It meant going on another adventure with my father. He was a lot of things. Husband. Father. Grandfather. Businessman. Car buff. Outdoorsman. Tinkerer. And pilot.

Roger Hannay was born and raised in upstate New York, went to school,  met his future wife Sherley in college, graduated, and went into the army, serving in Vietnam, leaving behind a young wife and new daughter. Upon his return, he worked for his grandfather, then his father, helping to grow the family business. He and Sherley had three more children, and they worked hard to provide for their growing brood.

When he wasn’t doing all these things, he loved to unwind by flying small aircraft. He got his licence after the army, and flew a succession of different airplanes, including the Cessna 172, Piper Cherokee, Cessna Skymaster, and Piper Malibu, among others. And I was always the one who was ready to go up with him on a cool Saturday morning. Sometimes we’d go to an airshow for a day trip, such as the big one in Warwick, Rhode Island (where I got into a bit of trouble after ‘borrowing’ a Navy recruiting go-kart for a little test spin, parked on display next to an F-16. How was the officer to know that this grade-schooler already knew how to drive? But that’s a story for another time).

Once, we went to the Super Bowl of airshows, the Oshkosh, Wisconsin EAA Fly-In, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, camping in a tent pitched right on the airfield, along with thousands of other pilots and their planes. But most often we would just fly along the Hudson River, or north to the Adirondack mountains, simply enjoying a couple hours in the air for no good reason. He would even let me take the controls. It didn’t matter to me where we went, I just loved to fly, and was never afraid when he was in the pilot’s seat.

And what does all this have to do with watches? One of my first memories of flying with Dad was of him using his Breitling Navitimer to make mid-flight calculations. This is when I first caught the watch bug.

It was big, and it was complicated, with two pushers, a large crown, and a slide rule on the bidirectional bezel. It was an inscrutable device to me, but he used it to calculate airspeed and fuel consumption in the days before computerized instrumentation. And to him, it was just a tool. Dad was not a watch guy. He was a tool guy. He was always building or taking apart something. He bought his Navitimer around 1970, a Reference 806, what collectors now call the ‘Big Eye’, due to the larger subdials. People didn’t think about “vintage watches” in those days. They were merely watches, not the fetishized objects they’ve now become. And he wore his on one of those hair-pulling Speidel metal stretch bands that were all the rage then. When cockpits became computerised, Dad retired the Breitling to a drawer and bought a black plastic digital watch. The Navitimer was a tool no longer needed.

Breitling released the Navitimer in 1952, first with an all-black dial, then with silver subdials for better legibility. There have been many iterations since then, but the 806 is recognized as one of, if not the quintessential Navitimer. He probably paid less than $250 for it at the time, and I’m sure the box and papers were binned shortly thereafter. Besides versions with the big winged ‘B’ logo or the version created for the AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association), there was the variant known as the “Twin Jet”, the logo on Dad’s watch (and my favourite). Inside Navitimers of that vintage you’ll find the manually wound Venus 178 column wheel chronograph movement. And it’s this movement that figures heavily into the watch’s future story.

So the years tick by, with kids growing up, getting married, having kids of their own, and soon enough, the time comes when our parents start to think about slowing down (just a bit, never retirement!) so they can spend time together, travel more, enjoy the grandchildren and life in general. Then we noticed a change.

Dad wasn’t his usual robust self. Looked thin. Less energetic. He had lost a step.

After a long period of searching with no answers, he was eventually diagnosed with myelofibrosis, a rare type of bone marrow cancer. We watched over the next five years, as a man who was over six feet and around 200 pounds waste away to 115. As heartbreaking as all his challenges were, he never stopped fighting, and never lost faith. Stubborn. And full of love for his family. He passed in February of 2018. We were all destroyed. I felt broken. And though I spent many priceless hours with him toward the end of his long ordeal, I was filled with regret that I couldn’t have more time. It’s the one thing we can’t make more of, no matter who we are, or where we come from, so trust me when I say make the most of every second.

Dad’s Navitimer passed to me, and I was determined to bring it back to life, as it was in need of a long-overdue service. I scoured the internet, watch forums, and Facebook watch groups, finally connecting with the right man for the job, Rick Hoover, a self-taught watchmaker from Pennsylvania with a stellar reputation. I was too nervous to send the watch through the mail, so I actually handed it to him while on a family trip through Pennsylvania. From the moment we met, I knew I had found the right person to bring Dad’s watch back.

Needless to say, Rick was the perfect choice, and he expertly serviced the Venus movement, left the dial as found (deteriorating tritium and all), and cleaned the case while leaving it unpolished, at my request. There were too many stories in those scratches to want to buff them away. The final step was tracking down the correct acrylic crystal: the original one had become crazed and spider-webbed, actually cracking during disassembly. We found it via one of my far-flung watch friends, vintage watch dealer Andreas Gregoriades (all the way from Cyprus!). It now lives on a black leather strap with white stitching, as befits a classic Breitling.

Author D.C Hanny pictured with his parents

I must admit I got a little misty when the Navitimer returned to me. It brought so many memories rushing back, most of all, the times spent flying with my father. I miss you Dad, and would have given anything to trade places with you. But I know I’ll see you again someday. Until then, I’ll keep part of you with me.