Looking at our stats, I see that demand for recommendations regarding diving watches is a seasonal thing with most visitors coming in summer and then gradually declining till Christmas only to start growing again in early January. “Pilots” are different animals: I have an impression that people are always interested in “aviators” regardless of the time of season. So, for your reading pleasure, a choice of fifteen timekeepers from under $200 to more than $10,000 as priced by online retailers that I find worthy of being considered while shopping for your new (or maybe your very first!) pilot’s watch this year.
Please, don’t be disappointed now, but in this category finding a “true” Swiss or German-manufactured watch is mission impossible. Even a timepiece from a Japanese brand will in most cases come with the dreaded “Japanese Mov’t” instead of a more promising “Made in Japan” inscription on the dial: cheaper labor, lower taxes, and -ahem- more lenient approach to protection of environment make China and other countries in South-East Asia an obvious choice for brands that operate below the $200 bar.
Still, thanks to rigorous quality control applied by Japanese brands, as well as modern machinery’s ability to churn out millions of cases, mineral crystals, hands, and many other parts that often look at least on par (if not better) than hand-crafted ones, you can find a pretty decent watch for that hard-earned cash.
15. Timex Flyback Chronograph: Around $110
Currently available on Amazon and other online retailers at a price of around $110 (the version in black PVD is $25 more expensive, but looks way cooler, too,) the Timex Flyback Chronograph features an unorthodox design of its extremely busy dial with a couple of retrograde indicators, a date window, and the flyback chronograph function. The 44 x 14 mm stainless steel case with polished bezel and brushed… well, everything else save for the control elements, looks surprisingly classy and, if you go for a version without PVD treatment, will look that way for the whole lifetime of the piece with inevitable bumps, scratches, and other battle scars making it look only better in the long run.
The Asian quartz caliber that animates the gadget doesn’t sound impressive, but their proprietary INDIGLO electro-luminescent backlight, as well as the guaranteed water resistance of 100 meters compensate for the lack of perceived pedigree. Also, the watch looks incredibly cool, did I mention that already?
14. Citizen Nighthawk (aka ref. BJ7000-52E in the USA): Around $200
If you are more into tool-style aviators with numerous scales and an inevitable slide-rule, but are not ready yet to make a commitment for a Breitling, the Citizen Nighthawk (a model that sells in the United States is also known as BJ7000-52E) is one of possible answers.
Almost two times more expensive than the aforementioned Timex, it fits this category only if you opt in to buying one online: having a list price of impressive $395, it is currently sold at Amazon at just $199.
Sporting more “wearable” dimensions of 42 x 12 millimeters in diameter and height, the watch has two distinct features. First, is the deliberately busy dial with a second time zone indicator, date, “fuel conversion” slide-rule operated by a crown at 8 o’clock, and luminous hour markers that give the gadget a more three-dimensional, even sort of premium look (although the use of an easy to scratch mineral crystal somewhat spoils the appeal.) The second is, of course, the huge bracelet that dwarfs the relatively compact case, and, too, is easy to scratch.
An Eco-Drive movement, too, make this gadget an interesting choice if you can’t afford a more expensive watch that features Bluetooth and GPS synchronization for an even better ability to keep good time.
13. Casio Edifice (ref. EF527D-1AV): Around $100
This one is, perhaps, one of the most affordable models in the whole sub-$200 category. Yet, affordability comes at a price: this watch looks the least original among the three: it’s visible that Japanese designers simply took one of their numerous Edifice chronographs; printed new, more “aviator-like” scales on the sub-dials; replaced the usual tachymeter scale with a “fuel volume conversion” slide rule, installed new hour hand with more “vintage” look and even more luminous compound in it, and… Bingo! We have a “pilot’s watch” in our range!
Still, as it is always the case with the Edifice line, the case assembly quality is top-notch (you may not like the way the chronograph push-pieces feel under your fingers, though,) the dial looks “professionally” busy, while all the control elements are easy to use.
The watch measures 45.5 x 11.5 millimeters in diameter and thickness. Its integrated lugs are on a longer side increasing the gadget’s length to still manageable 51 millimeters from lug to lug. What you may not like is the weight: with all this machine-brushed steel, the watch tips the scales at almost 160 grams (approximately 5.6 ounces,) which will make you always feel its heavyset presence on your wrist. So, if you are of a lighter build (or simply don’t want your watch constantly keeping you aware of it being here,) you should probably take this into consideration.
12. Seiko Flightmaster (ref. SNA411P1): Around $350-$400
Interested in an even busier look, but still not ready to make a commitment to a more expensive Swiss gadget? Seiko Flightmaster (ref. SNA411P1) is another way to go. The original massive stainless steel bracelet doesn’t do the vintage-inspired, mildly-oversized body of this watch any justice. As soon as you get one, have the abomination removed and install a good NATO or Zulu strap in a color of your liking (olive or military green will probably be the best to match its yellow chronograph hands) and you get yourself a gadget that leaves an “iconic” Breitling in the dust both in terms of build quality and “cool factor”.
The slide rule gives the gadget a really cluttered appearance, but telling time is really not a problem here: as long as you get used to the dial, you will be impressed how contrast and easy-to-read it is. Even the rudimentary calendar is readable enough thanks to a wisely chosen typeface and good contrast.
The Hardlex mineral crystal doesn’t look as “premium” as sapphire crystals that you can find on some European watches in this price range, but the “hard” part in its name still means that the artificial glass is, too, quite good at repelling minor scratches as long as you are prudent enough not to take the Flightmaster to a gym or a hiking trip. Its water resistance rating of 100 meters, too, significantly increases its versatility making it suitable for most daily tasks that include reasonable (i.e. not including a neoprene wetsuit and scuba gear) exposure to fresh or salty water.
Around five years ago, you would be able to find a nice new Archimede Pilot H model at just about $500 dollars. Sort of regretfully, the company moved upmarket and their pilots are now sitting comfortably in the “below $1000” range, but that’s not a problem: there are other great watchmaking brands that still have some interesting gadgets on offer. Prepare to love…
11. Laco Pilot Basic Augsburg 39mm: €340 (including VAT!)
Laco Pilot Basic is an extensive collection (there are dozens of watches in different stylings and sizes named after different cities) of pilot’s watches that is offered at prices ranging from €340 for versions in steel to still affordable €398 for versions in bronze. Some of these pieces are already only offered “at request,” but this Augsburg 39mm is still available.
The secret behind the outrageously low price is simple: Laco isn’t shy of using a Japanese Miyota 821 A automatic movement. The mechanism is often referred to as a “Japanese ETA 2824”: a workhorse caliber that, if properly taken care of, will serve you for years and years to come. The only downside -as, basically, with all “entry-level” mechanical movements- is that it needs to be regulated by a service professional in order to keep good time. Also, as I have already mentioned it while reviewing this DayNight T100 OPS Diver by American micro-brand Deep Blue, the low-tempo mechanism is known for the somewhat “rough” fashion its central seconds hand travels around the dial, but that, too, is common among timekeepers powered by “archaic” movements.
The watch itself features a deliberately generic “B-Uhr” design with the usual pair of diamond-shaped hands, a luminous triangle at 12 o’clock and a double-riveted “distressed leather” strap with contrast stitching. The only thing that is unique here is the brand’s logo, but that was the idea behind the whole series: these watches are supposed to look like a mass-produced government-issue timepiece designed for the military during a particularly exhausting war.
10. Stowa Flieger Klassik 40 Ikarus: €571 (excluding VAT)
Stowa is another German brand that offers a superb “historic homage” at a very tempting price. At just over €570 that at current exchange rate roughly converts to some $715 US dollars (shipping and your local custom duties are not included,) you get a very interesting take on the concept of a WWII-era pilot: the German watchmaker enhances the usual combination of brushed steel case and diamond-shaped hands (for extra €42, they will even offer the indicators in real heat-blued steel) with a light-gray, sandblasted dial giving the timekeeper a very classy, unexpectedly elegant appearance.
Measuring 40 millimeters in diameter and just over 10 millimeters thick, the watch looks great on a normal wrist. Its only problem is that its water resistance rating is limited to just 50 meters: enough for most daily tasks, but I personally still prefer my watches rated to 100 meters and above.
Like Archimede, Stowa offers ways to personalize the watch to your own liking. While in its standard form the Ikarus is powered by a basic ETA 2824 ebauche, for extra €110 you can get a Top-grade version of the caliber with their signature oscillating weight. If a hand-wound mechanism is your thing, you can even get a nicely decorated ETA 2804 for extra €126.
9. Archimede Pilot 39 Bronze LS (ref. UA7969-A5.1-BR): €756 (excluding VAT)
Archimede moved upmarket, yet, it is still possible to find an interesting-looking timekeeper in their “Pilot” range.
The Pilot 39 Bronze LS, for example, is offered in a beautiful case that has its main part (the back is still in steel) machined out of a single chunk of CuSn8 machine-brushed bronze alloy. Equipped with a sapphire crystal front and a mineral glass in the back, the 39 mm x 9.90 mm case houses the same ETA 2824-2 mechanism as the Ikarus. For some extra €75 (excl. VAT) it can be equipped with their own oscillating weight or, if you don’t believe in transparent back covers, can be protected from UV radiation by a solid steel cover with radial brushing.
A premium leather strap with an optional deployant clasp will increase the grand total by approximately €117 (again: excluding VAT) inflating the gadget’s price over the $1000 US dollars mark, but is worth the extra cash.
8. Alpina Startimer Pilot (ref. AL-525G4TS6): $1050
Surprisingly enough, I was able to squeeze a nice Swiss made “pilot” into a category dominated by German brands. This particular Alpina Startimer AL-525G4TS6 bears a price tag that is slightly higher than ten hundred bucks, but a number of US-based online retailers sell it at less than $700, so I decided: what the heck?
Powered by a Sellita SW200-based Caliber AL-525 and featuring a mildly oversized case of 44 x 11 millimeters, the watch features an attractive dark gray dial in matte finish and their signature cone-shaped setting crown with huge notches for even better grip. The main points of attractions here are the applied Arabic numerals with four block-shaped indices at 12, 3, 6 and 9 hours, as well as nicely finished leaf-shaped hour and minute hands. All these elements are treated with white Superluminova that ensures superb legibility in all conditions.
Compared to less expensive models in this chapter, the Startimer collection features an even more elaborate shape of its stainless steel case with brushed surfaces accented by strips of beveled and polished metal. The stock strap, too, looks great: unless you particularly hate the way it feels, it won’t require you a change for something more premium during the first year of ownership.
As for water resistance rating, at 100 meters it is adequate to the task of protecting the mechanism from the elements.
7. Glycine Airman SST 12 Blue Dial (ref. GL0073): $995 (MSRP)
The Airman is for a person who wants something more unique than your standard B-Uhr. Offering styling from the 70s with its distinct 43 mm case and high quality mesh bracelet that comes with it, the SST 12 also features a simple calendar and whole three 24-hour time zones with day/night indication.
As usual, the second and third time zones are displayed by an extra hour hand that points at two chapter disks on the dial and the bezel flange. While the former is set using the crown at three o’clock, the latter is manipulated by a slit-headed crown at 2 hours (well, it’s 6 and 4 hour respectively in this particular case.) The ergonomics isn’t its strongest suit, yet the watch still makes a strong impression with its attention to even the minutest details.
The Caliber GL293 that powers this vintage-styled beauty is based on ETA 2893-2 blank movement, which is good and bad. Good is supreme dependability and serviceability. Bad is the power reserve of just 38 hours meaning that leaving the watch in your drawer for a weekend is not an option. Still, in my opinion, the SST 12 is a winner in the sub-$1000 category.
6. IWC Pilot Black Automatic Chronograph (ref. IW377709): Close to $5000
Here, the competition for your cash is the fiercest than in any other category: big brands go out of their skin in order to wow you into buying new watches that often cost like a performance notebook or an entry-level motorcycle. With the category being dominated by Swiss-based watchmakers, IWC with its “Pilot” and “Big Pilot” collections of “aviators” is often the first one that crosses mind of a person in search for a military-styled, premium-priced time measuring device.
Compared to the Big Pilot collection with its gargantuan members often measuring up to 48 millimeters in diameter, this 43 millimeter IWC Pilot AutoChrono could look almost petite, if not for its profile of 15 millimeters.
Powered by ETA 7750-based Caliber 79320 with higher-grade components, the wristwatch delivers the standard mix of indicators including a 12-hour chronograph, and a day/date indicator at three o’clock. Its strict monochromatic color scheme (the bright red small seconds pointer at 9 hours is the only exception) makes legibility suffer, but that seizes to be a problem as long as you get used to the gadget’s layout. When your brain finally adjusts to the way the dial is finished, you suddenly realize that the color scheme offers superb contrast for good legibility at normal lighting, and there is enough Superluminova in all the right places to light a small room, so readability at night is also not a problem.
From my perspective, the IW377709 is the best “gentleman’s military watch” that you can get for reasonable money.
5. Bell & Ross Instrument Heritage BR 03-92 Automatic: $3800
This one is for those who prefer unbeaten paths.
Although the dial layout is sort of obvious with the “vintage” black-and-beige color scheme, and the hands styled to look like an instrument gauge indicator of a classic plane, the gadget quickly draws attention thanks to its unusual boxy case. Looking like it was machined from a single block of steel (probably correct) and put together using military-grade screws (probably incorrect,) the BR 03-92 is as brutal as a watch can get without sliding into a twilight zone occupied by strange species that came into our world right from steam- and diesel-punk comic books and anime. In other words, it doesn’t look like a pretentious silly toy.
The mechanism that animates it is nothing more than caliber ETA 2892: an unassuming industry workhorse that, in this price range, usually offers adequate performance right out of the box and doesn’t require much care beyond the usual servicing at intervals specified by the manufacturer.
Legibility here is even better thanks to its contrast color scheme and the number of indicators kept at bare minimum, although I am still not happy with the size of the calendar window: a “big date” complication or, at least, a fish eye lens over the date aperture would make the device almost impeccable. Also, you may find the lack of minutes/seconds marks on the chapter ring a bit disappointing. Still, the laconic aesthetics looks appealing. Another thing that I would change here is the leather strap: it is of great quality, but I feel that the watch needs a strap crafted from “vintage” leather to better match the overall aura of the device.
Like the aforementioned IWC Pilot, the BR 03-92 lacks a sapphire case back cover coming with an engraved solid steel back instead.
4. Hamilton Khaki Pilot Pioneer Automatic Chronograph (ref. H76456955): Around $1850
Hamilton has a whole line of timekeepers styled after iconic American watches produced in the first half of the 20th century. While not reproducing any particular watch of the era, the ref. H76456955 delivers everything that one would expect from a vintage-styled watch.
Classic needle-pointed hour and minute hands with a healthy amount of beige Superluminova? Check. Vintage-styled chapter ring with markings allowing to measure time with an impressive precision of up to 1/4th of a second? Check. A finely brushed 42mm stainless steel case with ergonomic chronograph push-pieces and an easy to grab, naturally protected winding/setting crown? Again: check.
Even the green NATO strap looks authentic enough for a gadget that is styled after those COSD watches that were produced in enormous quantities during World War II.
Like some of the chronographs mentioned above, this Khaki Pilot Pioneer is animated by a mechanism derived from the legendary ETA 775x family, but upgraded to a lot higher specs. Like it was the case with the ETA C07.111-based Caliber H-10, the Caliber H-31 that powers this device has the kinematic chain of the original refined to deliver more accuracy and efficiency. In order to make the movement to hold whole 60 hours of power reserve without slowing down cadence of the balance wheel (it still beats at 28,800 semi-oscillations per hour,) the original main-spring was replaced with a stronger (and, AFAIK, a bit longer) one that is able to store a lot more energy; the escapement regulator is now more reliable and precise, while the oscillating weight and other visible elements of the mechanism are personalized to Hamilton’s standards.
To infinity and beyond… $5000
3. Zenith Pilot Montre d’Aeronef Type 20 GMT 1903 Limited Edition (Ref. 96.2431.693/21.C740): Around $6500
Choosing a pilot’s watch in this category is the most difficult task: there are just so many interesting offerings there. Still, the best way to go is finding something that speaks to. Yes, there is always a temptation to go for a standard Breitling in a massive rose gold case and forget about the whole ordeal, but, let’s face it, the easiest way isn’t always the wisest.
The first candidate that comes to mind here is the ref. 96.2431.693/21.C740. First offered by Zenith back in 2014 with a recommended price of $7800, it is still available at serious online stores where you can get one for around $6500. The Pilot Montre d’Aeronef Type 20 GMT 1903 successfully combines a deliberately vintage exterior with a good Elite 693 in-house caliber and a case crafted from high-grade titanium alloy treated with scratch-resistant DLC coating.
With the lightweight case measuring 48 mm in diameter and almost 16 mm top to bottom (and also accompanied by a wide, rugged-looking Nubuck distressed leather strap with a deployant clasp fashioned from steel and treated with the same black DLC coating,) this is not a daily beater (unless its owner is himself a person of heroic proportions,) but at this price most customers are seeking for something that draws attention and that this Type 20 does with style.
2. IWC Top Gun Miramar Chronograph Automatic (ref. IW389002): Around $9000
Offered as a tribute to the US Navy education facility where best of the best of US fighter pilots hone their skills, the IW389002 is one of the range-topping models in IWC’s whole collection of premium-priced “aviators.” The gadget successfully combines glossy ceramic case with titanium crown and an in-house Caliber 89361 automatic movement that is protected from strong magnetic fields with an additional inner cage crafted from soft iron.
Looking rugged and “manly,” the watch is not as huge as the aforementioned Type 20: measuring just 44×15.5 millimeters and coming on a strap that combines leather and olive-colored textile, it is more convenient to wear on a daily basis if you are into more casual style. I am not terribly happy when I see a “sporty” watch that features a water resistance rating of just 60 meters, but I would be able to live with that.
1. Glashutte Original Senator Observer (ref. 100-14-07-02-30): Around $9000-$9500
Glashutte Original is one of those brands that are associated with dressier timekeepers that successfully combine cold elegance with cool complications and mesmerizing finish done by hands of skillful artisans. Yet, their Senator collection is regularly updated with “pilots” that look distinct and, well, original. I am still in love with their 2011 Senator Navigator Worldview model, but it’s long been discontinued, so there is another member of the family that can be recommended to a person willing to spend close to $10,000 USD for a watch.
While the Top Gun Miramar is designed for persons preferring a nice bomber jacket to a formal suit, this Glashutte Original Senator Observer is designed with different men in mind. It is that rare “pilot” that you can actually wear for a black tie event, if you are nonconformist enough to swap a classic Breguet or Patek Philippe three-hander for something more modern.
Compared to other Senators, the Observer has the usual silver dial swapped for a matte black one and with all the markings now done in Superluminova that looks white in normal lighting, while glowing pale green in darkness. In both lighting scenarios the watch is easy to read, while still not looking too aggressive compared to most of timekeepers featured in this “buyer’s guide.”
The in-house Caliber 100-15 that powers this watch may not be as exquisitely decorated as some other of their self-winding movements, but the finish is perfectly balanced to overall “technical” look. It would actually be strange to see tremblage on the plates and the usual hand-engraved flower patterns on the balance cock: it’s a pilot’s watch after all, it needs to look cool, sober, and formal.
Although I tried this overview not to look as a “top 15” -a strange thing to do with so many price niches and different stylings-, I still think that, if you can afford one, this German beauty is the one to go with: it’s one of those watches that one wouldn’t be ashamed to pass to his heirs when time finally comes for him to go.