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Why are watches for pilots so special? By Extropian

Dan Henry
Strond Timepieces
Why are watches for pilots so special? By Extropian

Pilots have always seemed super cool and glamorous, right? And while flying a plane is probably beyond the skill set of most of us (playing with a radio controlled version in your back garden doesn’t count…) you can still grab a little bit of that cool by strapping a pilot watch to your wrist! 

What exactly is a pilot’s watch? 

A pilot’s watch is basically anything with features originally designed to serve the needs of a pilot! That might include a GMT function for globe-trotting commercial pilots or a chronograph for timing the different legs of a flight. ‘But with a category that wide, how am I going to know that I’m actually wearing a pilot’s watch?!’ you cry. Well, we’ll tell you! 

Whatever the additional complication a pilot’s watch is always going to be SUPER legible. Let’s face it, if you were flying a fighter plane during World War II, you didn’t want to take your eyes off the sky for a moment longer than was necessary! You will know you have a bonafide pilot’s watch if it has the following features.  

  • A large dial - generally well over 40mm
  • High contrast dials and numerals for telling the time at a glance
  • Luminous numerals and hands so that the time can be read at all hours of the day and night
  • A large crown. This was originally so that pilots could adjust the time without having to remove their gloves - but it’s a feature that can still come in handy in the middle of winter!  
  • Some pilot’s watches have a hacking movement which stops the movement temporarily so it can be synchronized with a time source or other watches. This is another throwback to World War II - it was originally designed to synchronize bombings during the war. You might like to use it to make sure all your friends turn up on time for an evening out!

Flieger pilot watches

Flieger pilot watches have their own specific characteristics. Created for the German Luftwafe in the 1940s they were intended as flight equipment, primarily for navigators, and were not meant to be kept. Although we bet a few went missing! There are two distinct types. Type A has a classic dial with numerals 1 to 11 and a triangle with a dot on either side instead of the 12. Type B is more technical - it has large minute numerals from 5 to 55 and a small inner dial which lines up with the hour hand and has markers for each of the 12 hours. This may sound confusing but at a glance it’s actually super easy to read!


Ventus - Caspian - Flieger Type A 


❤️ We love the combination of bronze and black on this super cool modern update of the classic Flieger Type A!


Farer - Pilot Automatic - Flieger Type B 


❤️ We love something a bit unconventional at Extropian. And the Flieger Type B is just that!


A brief history of the pilots watch

Way back in 1904 the pioneering aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont was frustrated with the challenges of using a pocket watch while operating an airplane. Luckily for him he just happened to be friends with a certain Louis Cartier. Cartier created a wrist-mounted watch - then a novelty for men - with a large square dial with a screw on bezel and integrated lugs. Santos was wearing the watch when he made the first public flight in Europe using a powered winged aircraft in 1906. 

By 1911, Cartier was marketing the Santos Dumont watch in platinum or gold. It’s considered the first wrist watch designed for men. Such things were previously only for ladies, so the fact that guys would consider wearing them is perhaps an early indication of the way in which the glamor of aviation rubbed off on pilot watches! 

Pilot watches really came into their own in the 1950s and 60s, when air travel was just starting to be available to the masses and being a pilot was just about as glamorous a profession as you could imagine. Aircrew and passengers alike wanted models with a second time zone or world-time function that showed they were in with the cool gang! The Breitling Navitmeter and Rolex Air King are just two iconic designs that debuted in this era.

What watch do most pilots wear?

Of course the pilot watch, just like air travel itself, has continued to evolve, and contemporary indy brands are creating their own super cool versions. Modern pilots, and wannabe pilots, have a whole range of options to choose from! 

The classic pilot watch

If it’s a classic pilot watch you’re after then The Zelos - Skyraider II Ti and Nodus - Sector Pilot with their large dials and bold luminous numerals are cool contemporary updates!  

Zelos - Skyraider II Ti 


❤️ Cool and functional. We love it!

Nodus - Sector Pilot 


❤️ We seriously adore the mega chunky strap on this model

RZE - Fortitude Pilot 

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❤️ The slightly space agey vibe of the Fortitude Pilot is so cool!


The GMT watch

Although the GMT watch is a category all of its own, its connection with air travel means that it kinda has to count as a pilot’s watch too! Rolex launched the GMT-Master, the first timepiece to track two time zones simultaneously, back in 1954. Check out the Viqueria Sagittario GMT for a contemporary version.

Viqueria - Sagittario GMT 

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❤️If we were hopping between time zones, this is the model we’d want on our wrist!

The chronograph watch

Fancy a chronograph complication? The Zelos - ZX8 SR71 has a cool minimalist vibe while the Hemel - HF Series HFT20 has more of a retro feel to it. A particularly intriguing version is Bulova’s Lunar Pilot. As the name suggests, it is inspired by the ‘Moon Watch’, the brand made for Astronaut David Scott who wore it on the Apollo 15 mission! Well astronauts are kinda pilots, aren’t they?!

Hemel - HF Series HFT20 


❤️ At Extropian we love the retro feel of this chronograph

Strond Timepieces - DC3 MKII 1945 

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❤️ It’s the understated beauty of this model that has us seduced.

Zelos - ZX8 SR71 


❤️ The dial on this is made from an actual piece of the legendary SR-71 Blackbird. Just wow!  

Dan Henry - 1945 Pilot Chronograph II

Dan Henry 1963 Pilot Chronograph Blue 42.5mm No Date X600

❤️ That combination of tan and blue makes us want to jet off to sunnier climes!



With a pilot watch you have the perfect combination of glamor and utility. Whether you want a cool retro inspired model or something super contemporary there are plenty of options out there to tempt you! 

What to bear in mind

  • The pilot’s watch has a history as long as aviation itself
  • It was the original pilot’s watch, the Cartier Santos, that popularized the idea of wrist watches for men
  • Its association with aviation has always made it one of the coolest watch types out there!
  • A pilot’s watch can be recognised by a number of key characteristics - a large dial, high contrast dials and numerals, luminous numerals and hands, and a large crown

Created the 2023-01-12

Modified the 2023-12-20

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