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Breitling Chronomat Breitling Chronomat $8,100

Pilot's Watches: Functionality for the Highest Demands

Pilot's watches are precise instruments as well as stylish accessories. Originally designed for pilots, they have developed into one of the most beloved types of watches. Breitling and IWC are two of the most well-known producers of pilot's watches.


  • Famous brands: IWC, Breitling, Tutima, Fortis
  • IWC Mark XI features a typical pilot's watch design
  • Affordable pilot's watches available for less than 1,000 euros
  • Breitling Navitimer with a chronograph function and slide rule
  • Cartier Santos considered the first pilot's wristwatch

In the Cockpit with a Pilot's Watch

Pilot's watches are closely linked to aviation; the industry has strongly influenced the history and functionality of these special watches. For example, many pilot's watches are chronographs, meaning they also function as stopwatches. The term "pilot's watch" does not, however, have one standard definition. For some, it means a timepiece with a certain design: Watches with a black dial and white indices or numerals as well as large hands are enough to qualify as pilot's watches in some peoples' books. Another definition emphasizes other characteristics, such as legibility during the day and at night or a certain level of impact and shock resistance.
In the past, there wasn't a uniform standard for pilot's watches like the international ISO 6425 standard (DIN 8306) for diving watches. In 2016, however, the DIN 8330 standard was introduced, based on the Technical Standard for Pilot's Watches (Technischen Standard Fliegeruhren, TESTAF). According to DIN 8330, a certified pilot's watch is capable of replacing a plane's precise time measurement systems. Furthermore, the wearer is able to plan and execute vital, time-sensitive flight maneuvers with the watch. The German company Sinn was the first watch manufacturer to produce watches according to the DIN 8330 standard.
Two of the most famous manufacturers of pilot's watches are the Swiss brands Breitling and IWC. The design of the IWC Mark XI is particularly well known around the world and is often replicated. The watch is simple with its black dial, large numerals and indices, and triangular marker at the 12 o'clock position. IWC has sent the hand-winding model to numerous air forces.
One of Breitling's most famous timepieces is the Navitimer. Aside from its chronograph function, it has a rotatable bezel with a slide rule. With the help of this mechanism, you can calculate speeds, distances, and fuel consumption, as well as convert units of measurement.

Buying Advice

If you're interested in buying a pilot's watch, you have a large choice between many models from different brands. With such an expansive collection, there's certain to be the perfect watch for every budget. More affordable watches under 1,000 euros are available from Breitling. The Breitling Aerospace has the brand's characteristic bezel rider tabs at three, six, nine, and twelve o'clock. Inside its case, it's powered by an incredibly precise quartz movement. It's available for around 800 euros pre-owned. A used Breitling Chronomat is also available for less than 1,000 euros.
You can find numerous pre-owned Breitling watches for between 1,000 and 2,500 euros. Pilot's watches from the French manufacturer Bell & Ross are also available in this price range. Pre-owned pilot's chronographs from IWC cost around 2,000 euros. Three-hand models are available for less than 2,000 euros. IWC chronographs in good condition cost around 2,500 euros.
The 857 UTC watch from Sinn is available with or without TESTAF certification. Both versions cost about the same. You should plan on spending about 1,900 euros on a new model. A new chronograph Sinn 103 Ti TESTAF costs around 2,300 euros. New models with a chronograph and GMT function cost around 2,800 euros.
You can find Rolex's GMT-Master for under 10,000 euros. The Genevan manufacturer developed the GMT watch in the mid-1950s based on the demands of commercial pilots. The American airline Pan American World Airways (Pan Am) used the GMT-Master as their official watch.

History of Pilot's Watches

The Cartier Santos is considered the first pilot's watch. Louis Cartier developed the square wristwatch in 1904 for the Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos Dumont. Two years later, Dumont flew the first official flight in a motorized airplane. During the flight, he wore the Santos, allowing him to keep both hands on the controls while still keeping an eye on the time.
The roots of modern day pilot's watches go all the way back to pocket watches — or, more accurately, deck watches used in high-sea navigation. These watches were portable pocket watches that supplemented a ship's marine chronometer. The marine chronometer was anchored to the ship and mounted on three freely moving axles, keeping the dial face up even during heavy swells. The marine chronometer was regulated in this position. Sailors used these highly precise chronometers to determine their exact location. During long trips at sea, watches accurate to the second were indispensable for navigation.
The officers on board synchronized their deck watch with the marine chronometer and returned to deck to determine their position via sextant. A deck watch had a very precise movement, but due to the extreme deviations in temperature and different positions, it wasn't as precise as a marine chronometer.
At the beginning of the 20th century, pilots used these deck watches during flights. They soldered pieces to the watches and looped thick leather straps through them. When modified this way, they could wear the deck watches on their thighs or over a flight suit. These pilot's watches were easily identifiable by their large crowns, which also allowed the wearer to set the time with gloves on.
Later, deck watches received their characteristic pilot's watch design. A black dial with yellow numerals became a signifying feature of these timepieces. At the beginning of the 20th century, manufacturers started using the luminous, radioactive material radium. Today, they use the luminescent, non-radioactive material Superluminova. Black dials have some obvious advantages: There's no glare, and together with luminous indices and hands, they are easy to read at twilight and at night.
Most pilot's watches from the early 20th century also featured a stop-seconds mechanism. This allowed the wearer to set the watch to the exact second, which is necessary to navigate accurately. One of the most important German manufacturers of these types of watches was the Glashütte-based company A. Lange & Söhne. During the Second World War, they produced pilot's watches exclusively for the military; today, these watches are very rare. Just as rare are German pilot's chronographs, which were produced by manufacturers such as Tutima and Junghans. The movements powering these watches originally came from Glashütte. Altogether, there are only 300 to 400 watches remaining from the 1930s and 40s. These vintage watches cost upwards of 30,000 euros each.

Historical Highlights

  • Origins tracing back to deck watches used on ships
  • Deck watches with leather straps were the first pilot's watches
  • Cartier Santos: the first pilot's watch in the form of a wristwatch
  • A. Lange & Söhne was one of the most important manufacturers of German pilot's watches

IWC Mark XI: The Cult Pilot's Watch

The IWC Mark XI is a classic pilot's watch. The Swiss manufacturer IWC produced the watch starting at the end of the 1940s. The Mark XI was a smaller version of the Mark X. For around 30 years, IWC delivered the Mark XI to numerous air forces around the world. The simple, hand-winding watch featured no chronograph function. Therefore, it was comparably inexpensive at 350 Swiss francs. Now, it costs between 5,000 and 9,000 euros. The watch had a characteristic black dial with bright luminous numerals and a triangle at 12 o'clock. Still to this day, manufacturers such as Fortis produce pilot's watches with this simple, iconic design.

The Standard for Pilot's Watches: DIN 8330

An official standard for pilot's watches has existed since the beginning of 2016: the German DIN 8330. The watch manufacturer Sinn Spezialuhren initiated the process of developing this standard. The German Institute for Standardization (DIN) decided in the summer of 2013 to create a new standard for pilot's watches based on the Technical Standard for Pilot's Watches (TESTAF). This standard is oriented to meet the challenges of modern aviation. The aerospace engineering department at the Aachen University of Applied Sciences together with Sinn Spezialuhren developed the TESTAF in 2012. According to DIN 8330, pilot's wristwatches must be compatible with other on-board instruments, pose no risk to the aircraft and crew, and must be able to withstand the physical stressors of flight.
DIN 8330 differentiates between visual flight rules (VFR) and instrument flight rules (IFR). Watches certified according to IFR rules require a stopwatch function and are thus chronographs. Watches certified to VFR have a 12-hour as well as a 60-minute display. The central second hand must feature a mechanism so it can be stopped to the exact second. Furthermore, the standard requires the watch to have a bi-directional rotatable bezel with minute markers and ratcheting. The dial and scale background must be matte black, and the diameter of the dial must not be smaller than 27 mm. The watch has to be easily legible, and thus the hour indices, triangular marker on the bezel, and the hour, minute, and second hands must be filled with luminous material and glow for at least three hours.
The DIN 8330 also requires pilot's watches and their functions to work properly between -15 °C and +55 °C (5 to 131 °F). They have to pass an impact test by surviving a drop from a 1-meter height onto a hardwood floor. They are also tested for waterproofness according to DIN 8310. The watches undergo further tests for precision, strap fittings, and magnetic field resistance, among other things. At the end of the tests, the watch must still function properly and have no signs of external damage.