Business class for an economy fare: the best pilot watches of 2020 under $10KZach Blass
Watches and aviation have long been on the same flight path, with multiple timepieces made specifically to take to the skies. Without aviation, for example, we would not have the historic Cartier Santos – named after Alberto Santos-Dumont, the pilot who requested its creation. Known for their larger cases and high degree of legibility, pilot’s watches have attracted many buyers over the years who’ve never ventured anywhere near a cockpit. But whether you’re a budding Top Gun or permanently grounded, these are the best pilot watches of 2020 under $10K.
Longines Spirit 40mm blue dial on leather strap
The Spirit 40 from Longines is like an album where every song is a hit – it just strikes all the right notes. At 40mm, it has a nice modern case size and is water resistant to 100m with a screw-down crown. Underneath the anti-reflective coated sapphire crystal is a highly legible and rich blue dial with a magnificent sunburst gradient texture. While some will always fret over the aesthetic of a date-window, the date disc perfectly matches the blue dial and blends harmoniously with minimal interruption. There’s 64 hours of power reserve, thanks to its reliable movement, upgraded with a silicon hairspring. This is the kind of watch that will make you wonder why it’s worth waiting months for a Datejust when you can get practically the same tech and quality at a fraction of the price. RRP: $2250 USD.
Bell & Ross BR 03-92 HUD
Bell & Ross revolutionised the modern pilot’s watch by effectively miniaturising the displays found within a cockpit and turning them into robust and reliable watches. This limited edition of 999 pieces is inspired by a pilot’s HUD (Head Up Display), which is a transparent glass screen that strategically places all of the information that is essential to fulfill a mission in the pilot’s visual field. The matte black ceramic dial features a central hour disc with Arabic numerals and indices and hands painted with Super-LumiNova®. The minutes are displayed on a stepped ring around the central hour disc, providing better legibility and an elegant depth to the dial. The four HUD-inspired right angles are also painted with green Super-LumiNova, which means this watch will really light up in the dark. The dial is covered by a green sapphire crystal with anti-reflective coating to really drive home the stealth military aesthetic. The matte black ceramic case is 42 mm in width and water resistant to a depth of 100 metres. It is bundled with black rubber and ultra-resilient black synthetic fabric straps to give the wearer nice distinct options that both pair with the watch really well. RRP: $3990 USD.
Fortis Flieger F-43 Bicompax
The Flieger F-43 Bicompax from Fortis is a real powerhouse that covers a lot of bases. The brushed 43mm stainless steel case (including the bezel) is water resistant to 200 metres. If you are worried about the vulnerability inherent for chronograph pushers in water, the shaped pushers incorporate anti-slip technology, which will make it hard to accidentally start the chronograph. The 12-hour bezel is also made of brushed steel and is bi-directional with 24 clicks. The black opaline dial has a fine grained texture and is complemented by highly legible orange and green accents for great visual contrast against the predominant black colour. In place of a third chronograph register, the date window is placed at the symmetrical 6 position, with a dial-matching date disc for better blend. It utilises Super-LumiNova X1 coatings with a green afterglow to increase visibility in darkness and is protected by a sapphire crystal with anti-reflective coating on both sides. Powering the watch is the UW-51 Automatic self-winding chronograph movement with unidirectionally winding special rotor and 48 hours of power reserve. Worried about finding the perfect fit? The stainless steel bracelet features a slide clasp with quick adjustment option to better fine-tune the fit and level of comfort on the wrist. RRP: 3600 CHF.
Bremont MBII 2020 Update
The watch is inspired by Martin-Baker, which supplies about 70 per cent of the world’s air forces with ejection seat technology – providing a clear connection to the aviation theme. It features the brand’s robust 43mm hardened stainless steel case construction with a knurled aluminium barrel and is water resistant to 100 metres. An inner soft-iron anti-magnetic Faraday cage serves to protect the movement against magnetism. Their patented inner bi-directional Roto-Click® bezel is operated by the crown at the 4 position. Three metal dial configurations are available: black, white or blue, and each displays the hours, minutes and date very legibly. The indices and hands are Super-LumiNova coated, and the domed scratch-resistant sapphire crystal has nine layers of anti-reflective treatment to maintain visibility in all environments. From a horological perspective, this is the prime example of a watch that proves how far ETA bases can be modified to a much higher standard. The modified calibre 11 1/4″ BE-36AE is an automatic chronometer with 25 jewels, a Glucydur balance, Anachron balance spring, Nivaflex 1 mainspring, and entirely new automatic bridge for increased shock resistance. It beats away at a modern 28,800 vph with 38 hours of power reserve. RRP: $4995 USD.
The most affordable watch on this list, the A-15 Pilot Watch is inspired by the 1944 Military Issue A-15 “Elapsed Time Watch”. The 42mm stainless steel case is entirely brushed, with the exception of the mirror-polished bezel, and water resistant to 30 metres. The distinctive black dial features two rotating inner discs operated by two crowns. The crown at the two position rotates the outer elapsed time counter while the crown at the four position rotates the inner 12-hour ring that serves as a dual time indicator. At its centre is a military time indicator which pops against the black dial in a eye-catching yellow. While some manufacturers would go quartz at this price point, Bulova has stayed faithful to the original with a fine 82S6 21-jewel automatic movement with 42 hours of power reserve. RRP: $556 USD.
Hanhart 417 ES Reissue
I have to confess this is the watch I have the most connection with on this list, as I recently bought the limited edition version in Bronze and absolutely love it. Now more people can join in on the fun, as they have introduced a production version of the watch in stainless steel. The Hanhart 417 ES reissue is 42mm with a lug to lug of under 50mm. If you include the domed sapphire crystal, its thickness is 13.3mm; without the crystal, it’s 11.55 mm. The rather thin nature of the satin and polished finished case is due to the manual-wind Sellita SW510 M (58 hours of power reserve on full wind). The fluted rotating bezel is continuously rotatable, with red indicating marker. The black dial utilises a bi-compax layout, with a small second 30-minute counter at 3 and running seconds at 9. The hour, minute and central seconds chronograph hands, along with the Arabic hour numerals of the dial, are all coated in Super-LumiNova for high visibility in darkness. The 21mm wide Bund Calfskin strap with Alcantara on the inside (on the black strap) is incredibly supple and comfortable on the wrist to deliver one of the more pleasant Bund experiences I have personally worn. RRP: €1744
Hamilton Khaki Aviation Converter Chronograph Auto
The Hamilton Khaki Aviation Converter Chronograph Auto is 44mm in diameter with a water resistance of 100 metres. The brushed case features polished tapers on the lugs that evoke a sense of vintage elegance. The watch provides a lot of information, both through its slide-rule bezel and the chronograph and day-date complications within the black dial. Inside is the Caliber H-21 Si, which is a modified ETA 7750 movement with an upgraded silicon hairspring and 60 hours of power reserve – packing in a lot of tech for the dollar. RRP: $1995 USD.