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The adventure of the pilot’s watch (III)
History & Masterpieces

The adventure of the pilot’s watch (III)

Tuesday, 16 September 2014
By Grégory Gardinetti, Christophe Roulet, Emmanuel Schneider
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Grégory Gardinetti
Expert and Historian in Watchmaking

“The educated differ from the uneducated as much as the living from the dead.”

Aristote

Whether exhibitions in Mexico City, Moscow and Tokyo, talks to audiences all over the world or specialist articles, infinite ways exist to give the full measure of time.

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Christophe Roulet
Editor-in-chief, HH Journal

“The desire to learn is the key to understanding.”

“Thirty years in journalism are a powerful stimulant for curiosity”.

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Emmanuel Schneider

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4 min read

Since the very first civilisations, the measurement of time has progressed with Man’s ingenuity. The same is true of aviation, which turned to watchmakers for accurate, functional, durable products. Timepieces in a class of their own with an immediately recognisable design.

The end of the Second World War ushered in a golden age for civil and commercial aviation, and certain watch manufacturers would benefit from these halcyon years. Breitling was very much one of them. Established in 1884, the brand had always nurtured strong ties with the world of flight, aptly symbolised by the two wings around the letter B in its logo. The main supplier to the British Royal Air Force in the 1930s, Breitling already enjoyed a long-standing reputation as a maker of precision timepieces, including one of the first ever wrist chronographs equipped with an independent pusher, in 1915. More inventions followed, with the separation of the stop/start and reset functions, and the introduction of the second chronograph pusher.

Watches that made history

Breitling had other tricks up its sleeve, too. In 1942 it launched the Chronomat (a contraction of “chronograph” and “mathematics”), the first wrist chronograph with a circular slide rule. At a time when electronic instruments had yet to be invented, a watch that could be used to perform the calculations required to map flight plans, including distance covered, average speed and fuel consumption, was a major breakthrough. Ten years later it evolved into the Navitimer, the oldest chronograph still in uninterrupted production. Unsurprisingly, given its credentials, the Navitimer became the official chronograph of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the biggest association of its kind in the world. Breitling, meanwhile, earned the title of “official supplier to world aviation.”

Rolex Oyster Perpetual GMT-Master, made in the late 1950s (© Antiquorum)

Rolex is another manufacturer to have contributed to some of aviation’s finest hours. In 1954 the “brand with the crown” launched its Rolex GMT-Master… which later earned the sobriquet of “Pussy Galore” after the character who wore it in Goldfinger, the third James Bond movie. More prosaically, Rolex designed the GMT-Master at the request of Pan Am, then the world’s largest airline, which wanted to equip its pilots with a watch that would simultaneously display two time zones. It was based on the Turn-O-Graph, the first watch by Rolex to feature a rotating bezel, produced in 1953. For the GMT-Master, Rolex modified the movement to incorporate an additional wheel for the 24-hour display of the second time zone and a date disc. The rotating bezel is graduated over 24 hours. And the legend lives on, as this year Rolex presented a new version of its GMT-Master II with a unique, two-colour Cerachrom bezel.

The military falls in line

Military aviation was hot on the smoke trail of civil aviation, thanks to increasingly powerful planes. In 1953 the North American F-100 Super Sabre, a first-generation American supersonic jet fighter, was already flying at an altitude of almost 46,000 metres and 863 mph. A couple of years later, the Mirage III became the first European fighter plane capable of exceeding Mach 2 (1,500 mph). Watchmakers continued to ride shotgun as national air forces commissioned them for timepieces that were now systematically built to specification. France’s Ministère des Armées turned to the likes of Auricoste, Breguet, Dodane and Vixa to supply flyback chronographs which had to deliver a rate variation within ± 8 seconds/day and a power reserve of at least 35 hours. Dials were obligatorily black with luminescent numerals. Cases measured 39mm in diameter for a thickness of 14mm. Commemorating the fifty years since delivery, in 1960, of five hundred now legendary Type XX watches to the French naval air force, Breguet released the Type XXII Flyback Chronograph GMT whose silicon escapement beats at a frequency of 10 Hz (72,000 vib/hour), thereby fractioning time into twentieths of a second.

Big Pilot's Watch Perpetual Calendar Top Gun from 2012 (© IWC)

Unlike Breguet and other manufacturers which celebrate their high-flying exploits, Jaeger-LeCoultre has opted out of anniversary editions of the widely acclaimed Mark 11 which it delivered to the Royal Air Force in 1948. Omega, meanwhile, prefers to associate its name with the conquest of space, despite orders placed for its 6B/159, again developed for the RAF in the Second World War, and which went on to inspire the brand for its legendary Seamaster. They were followed in 1956 by its own delivery of Mark 11. IWC, which made its first pilot’s watch in 1936, responded to the solicitations of the RAF in a different way: “From 1940, the Schaffhausen-based manufacturer started producing the Big Pilot’s Watch 52 T. S. C. in accordance with military specifications for a navigation or deck watch. It was the most voluminous wristwatch ever made by IWC. With its extremely reductionist design, the dial was clearly organized and took inspiration from the cockpit instrumentation of contemporary aircrafts. The instrument look was the inspiration for IWC’s design of the Mark 11, produced from 1948 onwards. The best known of the Pilot’s Watches from IWC, it was originally built for the Royal Air Force and remained in service for more than 30 years.” With new issues in 2012 that included the Big Pilot’s Watch Perpetual Calendar Top Gun, IWC continues to train the spotlight on this particular family of watches.

What about today? Now that electronics rule the cockpit, mechanical pilot’s watches have been demoted from top flight instrument to back-up tool. Much as today’s dive watches are most exposed when washing dishes, a pilot’s watch is hardly a must-have for holidaymakers boarding a charter flight for their fortnight in the sun. Yet the style remains, and the art of producing a watch that calls to mind our forebears’ pioneering spirit. An exploit in itself.

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