Do Airline Pilots Actually Wear Pilot Watches?

Jul 14, 2018

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You’ve seen the ads in magazines: A celebrity wearing a shiny Breitling watch, coupled with images of aircraft zooming through skies. What the ads are selling is so-called “pilot watches,” which typically feature a black dial and bold, white and luminescent hands.

There’s real history behind these watches. But as it turns out, most airline pilots don’t wear pilot watches at all.

Some History

Watches and aviation have an intertwined history. Time-elapsed, distance traveled and fuel burn calculations are essential to pilots, and before computers did the job, the watch was the tool to use. Recognizing the importance of accuracy for those purposes, the Royal Air Force commissioned and issued watches to pilots in World War II. They were manufactured by 12 watchmakers such as IWC, Grana and Omega. (Spot an Omega worn by Tom Hardy in the movie Dunkirk.) The RAF continued to issue watches to pilots into the mid-2000s.

A Nifty Design: the GMT

In the 1960s, Rolex designed the “Pepsi” GMT watch, so nicknamed because of its red-and-blue bezel resembling the beverage company’s logo, at the request of Juan Trippe, the legendary leader of Pan Am. His pilots loved the nifty design, which displays two time zones at once.

“It was designed to be a sturdy tool, and made to be used,” Alan Bedwell, a New York-based watch expert and the founder of Foundwell, told TPG. “Rolex delivered for pilots.”

This connection helped the brands move watches. Rolex, Omega, IWC and Breitling carefully crafted the movements of their watches, and also the emotional connections these watches held for the “sports-minded.” They developed driver, diver, and aviator watches. Breitling even created a special watch called the Navitimer which incorporated a circular slide rule to assist a pilot in quick calculations. Then, the brands marketed the product with clever, long-form ads. (“How a Pan-Am 747 Pilot Tells The Times,” declared the print ad seen below, from the 1960s.)

A vintage PanAm ad. Image from Rolex Magazine.
Image from Rolex Magazine.

The message was clear. If the pilots flying a Boeing 747—some of the best—wore a Rolex, well, then you should too.

Enter The Moonwatch

The Omega Speedmaster worn by Astronaut Gordon Cooper, Commander of the Gemini V mission in August 1965. Image from Smithsonian.
The Omega Speedmaster worn by astronaut Gordon Cooper, commander of the Gemini V mission in August 1965. Image from Smithsonian.

Pilot watches went celestial via the early astronauts and Omega. Astronaut Edward H. White wore his personal watch on the Gemini IV mission, an Omega Speedmaster he had purchased at a local Houston jewelry retailer. Not officially sanctioned by NASA, the watch was eventually tested and selected by the agency as official equipment. According to the Smithsonian, the “[p]rogram requirements called for a manual-winding wrist chronograph that was water-proof, shock-proof, anti-magnetic, and able to withstand temperatures ranging from 0 to 200 degrees Fahrenheit and accelerations of 12 gs.”

The watch made its way to space many more times, including on Buzz Aldrin’s wrist when he walked on the moon. (Incidentally, Aldrin’s watch went missing in transit to the Smithsonian.) Omega took note, and it manufactures the watch to this day, marketing it as the “moonwatch”. The Speedmaster is still issued to astronauts and is the only piece of equipment common to the Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle missions. Check out the Smithsonian’s collection of Moonwatches here, including watches worn by the crew of Apollo 13.

Descent to 35,000 Feet

So, do airline pilots actually wear these watches today?

The answer is mostly no.

Indeed, some professional pilots don’t wear watches at all. It comes down to personal preference. Times have changed, said Mark Vanhoenacker, British Airways 787 pilot and author of “Skyfaring” and “How to Land a Plane”. Early in his career he was required by the airline to wear a functioning chronometer. Today his wrist is bare, onboard or off.

“I still have my dark blue Swatch. It still flies with me, but it’s nestled in the bottom of my flight bag,” he said in an interview with TPG.

Shannon Pereira currently flies in the right seat with JetBlue. The Boston-based pilot wears a simple black and gold watch. “Most guys wear Apple watches or other smart watches,” she said. “I actually don’t find too many that wear pilot watches. If they aren’t wearing a smart watch, then they’re typically fashionable and have a fancy watch.”

One such pilot is Troy Booker. He’s a naval aviator and a 787 pilot with United, jetting around the world. Booker flies all manner of aircraft, as you can see on his Instagram account. (He’s in the US Navy reserves).

Booker is a self-described watch addict. His everyday watch is a Breitling B50 Cockpit Night Mission. “Having multiple time zones is a must,” he said in an email.

Booker also owns a Breitling Navitimer GMT, and De Pol chronometer. (De Pol is a watch brand launched in 2014, started by a fighter pilot.)  “It’s got my US Navy Pilot gold wings emblazoned on the face,” Booker said. “They also engraved the wings on the back with my call-sign.” (His call sign is T-Roy).

“Every pilot should fly with a watch. In the military, we actually learned how to use its functionality. You also need that conversation piece that stands out and says ‘I’m an aviator’,” Booker said jokingly.

But for that, you don’t really need a watch: “Most of us are quick to let you know anyway.”

TPG contributor Mike Arnot is the founder of Boarding Pass NYC, a New York-based travel brand, and a private pilot.

Featured image of a Wempe aviator watch from 1943 at the Mayfair Antiques and Fine Art Fair in London, England, by Leon Neal/Getty Images

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