A subtle flight of fancy: Zenith’s revamped Pilot collection flies high A subtle flight of fancy: Zenith’s revamped Pilot collection flies high

A subtle flight of fancy: Zenith’s revamped Pilot collection flies high

Jamie Weiss

Did you know that Zenith is the only watch brand in the world that’s allowed to put the word “Pilot” on their dials? It’s because back in 1888 – a whole 15 years before the Wright Brothers made their first flight – Zenith filed their first trademark on the word. Zenith founder Georges Favre-Jacot was one of the first watchmakers to identify the importance of timekeeping for pilots in the early, formative days of aviation, and fittingly, Zenith was also one of the first watch brands to produce a pilot’s watch.

These days, Zenith might be better known for their high-beat chronograph movements and high-tech skeletonised creations – like the Zenith x Time+Tide Defy Skyline Skeleton Night Surfer El Primero, for example (we love a shameless plug) – but they still make some fantastic Pilot’s watches. For 2023, Zenith has completely revamped their Pilot collection, introducing a far more modern case and dial design that nevertheless still pays homage to the history of flight and pilot’s watches.

The cases

zenith pilot automatic ceramic

Zenith has whittled down their Pilot collection to just four watches across two main flavours: the three-handed Pilot Automatic, and the self-explanatory Pilot Big Date Flyback, a flyback chronograph. Both models are available in either vertically brushed stainless steel or in microblasted black ceramic. The Zenith Pilot Automatic measures up at 40mm, while the Pilot Big Date Flyback is slightly larger at 42.5mm, which is still a hell of a lot smaller than the previous generation Zenith Pilot, which at 45mm was a more observation watch-style design.

zenith pilot automatic steel crown

The two models share a fundamental case design, which is functional but handsome, featuring a thin flat bezel, a slightly boxed crystal, chunky lugs and an oversized crown that features a modern knurled design instead of a conical or onion-shaped crown which you might more readily associate with a pilot’s watch.

The dial

zenith pilot automatic steel closeup

Similarly, the Zenith Pilot Automatic and Pilot Big Date Flyback share a common dial: a black opaline design, which features broad horizontal grooves that call to mind the corrugated metal fuselage of famous early planes, such as the Junkers Ju-52. It’s a subtle but stylish look: it doesn’t disrupt the legibility of the watch while adding a little touch of flair. Large modern numerals filled with Super-LumiNova, broad alpha hands and Zenith’s retro “Pilot” trademark complete the picture.

zenith pilot big date flyback ceramic closeup

The Pilot Automatic features a simple white-on-black date window at 6 o’clock. In contrast, the Big Date Flyback swaps that out for a big date complication and adds two oversized subdials to the mix: a 30-minute counter for the chronograph at 3 o’clock and a small seconds (well, it’s not really that small, actually) at 9 o’clock. It looks quite different to your standard bi-compax chrono.

zenith pilot big date flyback steel

The steel Zenith Pilot Big Date Flyback features two additional aesthetic touches: the central chronograph seconds hand and chronograph minutes hand are painted bright orange, while the 30-minute chronograph totaliser at 3 o’clock features a rainbow-coloured edge, a nod to the popular El Primero “Rainbow Flyback” of the 90s. I really dig that Zenith’s gone the extra mile with this little reference. I don’t think anyone would have minded if the steel Pilot Big Date Flyback was a carbon copy of the ceramic model – but this is a nice little pop of colour.

The movements

zenith pilot big date flyback ceramic caseback

Both the Zenith Pilot Big Date Flyback and the Pilot Automatic are powered by versions of Zenith’s famous El Primero movement. The former uses the El Primero 3652, a more complicated flyback version of the movement that powers the Zenith Chronomaster Sport; while the latter uses the El Primero 3620, a simplified time-only version of the El Primero that made its debut with the Zenith Defy Skyline that, unlike that watch, has a conventional centre seconds hand. The El Primero 3652 additionally features a patented mechanism that advances and stabilizes both of the big date’s wheels in less than 0.03 seconds.

zenith pilot automatic steel caseback

Both versions of the El Primero that power these Pilots beat at 5 Hertz, boast 60-hour power reserves and feature open automatic rotors modelled after ‘artificial horizon’ plane dashboard instruments, which inform pilots of their aircraft’s orientation relative to the Earth’s horizon. It’s another cool nod to the world of aviation, but it also lets the wearer get an even better look at the movement powering their watch.

The straps

zenith pilot automatic steel

By default, all four versions of the new Zenith Pilot come mounted on sporty black Cordura-effect rubber straps, but they also all come with two strap options: the steel versions come with an additional brown calfskin leather strap while the ceramic versions come with another khaki-coloured Cordura-effect strap. All these straps can be easily swapped on and off thanks to their quick-release mechanisms, which feature push-buttons built into the back strap emblazoned with text reading ‘PUSH TO REMOVE’. They remind me of plane seatbelt buckles, which I’m sure was Zenith’s intention.

The verdict

zenith pilot big date flyback ceramic on wrist

It’s a bold move, axing an entire watch family in favour of just four models, but I think Zenith’s on the money with these new Pilot watches. In a world filled with ‘flieger‘ and ‘Dirty Dozen‘-esque designs, the Zenith Pilot Automatic and Pilot Big Date Flyback stand out by doing something a little bit different. I like how they’ve got an air of whimsy about them. Sure, they’re very functional watches, but it’s the little things – like the corrugated dial, the chunky crown, even the “Pilot” trademark – that make them feel somehow a bit less po-faced than most other luxury mechanical pilot’s watches.

Zenith Pilot pricing & availability

The Zenith Pilot Automatic and Pilot Big Date Flyback are available now from Zenith dealers and online. Price: A$11,400 (Pilot Automatic, steel), A$14,400 (Pilot Automatic, ceramic), A$17,300 (Pilot Big Date Flyback, steel), A$20,400 (Pilot Big Date Flyback, ceramic).

Brand Zenith Zenith
Model Pilot Automatic Pilot Big Date Flyback
Reference Number 03.4000.3620/21.I001 (steel)
49.4000.3620/21.I001 (ceramic)
03.4000.3652/21.I001 (steel)
49.4000.3652/21.I001 (ceramic)
Case Dimensions 40mm (D) x 12.9mm (T) x 49.6mm (LTL) 42.5mm (D) x 14.3mm (T) x 51.43mm (LTL)
Case Material Brushed stainless steel
Black microblasted ceramic
Brushed stainless steel
Black microblasted ceramic
Water Resistance 100 metres 100 metres
Crystal(s) Sapphire Sapphire
Dial Black with horizontal grooves, date window at 6 o’clock Black with horizontal grooves, 30-minute counter at 3 o’clock, big date at 6 o’clock, small seconds at 9 o’clock
Lug Width 20mm 20mm
Strap Comes with 2 straps: black Cordura-effect rubber strap +
brown calfskin leather strap (steel)
khaki Cordura-effect strap (ceramic)
Comes with 2 straps: black Cordura-effect rubber strap +
brown calfskin leather strap (steel)
khaki Cordura-effect strap (ceramic)
Movement El Primero 3620, automatic El Primero 3652, automatic
Power Reserve 60 hours 60 hours
Functions Hours, minutes, seconds, date Hours, minutes, small seconds, instantaneous big date, flyback chronograph
Availability Available now Available now
Price A$11,400 (steel)
A$14,400 (ceramic)
A$17,300 (steel)
A$20,400 (ceramic)