How did WWII fighter pilots navigate

Pilot watches

What you should know about pilot's watches

One of the most successful types of watches is that of the Pilot watch. Their popularity has to do with their unmistakable design and this in turn with their eventful history: When humans took to the skies, timepieces became an indispensable instrument, a type of its own developed - the Pilot watch.


Gone are the days when every pilot needed a special watch to support them. Modern measuring instruments and, last but not least, GPS, the global navigation satellite system for determining position and time measurement, are the work equipment required today. What remains, however, is the typical look of a pilot's watch: with its classic design, the watch for pilots is one of the cherished favorites of some watch collections.

The first pilot's watches

But back to the beginning: the Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont carried out numerous tests with his self-built aircraft at the beginning of the 20th century. He is said to have complained to his friend and jeweler Cartier that ordinary pocket watches are barely legible during a flight. Then Cartier constructed the now legendary Santos. The model went into series production in 1911 and has been an integral part of the watch collection ever since.

Chronology: The free download gives you an overview of the history of the mechanical pilot's watch. You can download the timeline here.

The development of the typical pilot's watches

In the First World War, pilot's watches did not have bracelets. Rather, these models were pocket watches in a leather case that was worn on the wrist or attached to the cockpit. At first it was all about the precisely readable time, which is why these early pilot's watches have a small second were equipped.
Konrad Knirim describes another feature: "The crown of these watches is attached at the bottom so that the watch can also be wound in the holder." Knirim, a trained mechanical engineer, is a proven expert on military watches. As a passionate collector, he often publishes on this subject, has published two books and has dealt intensively with pilot's watches. He is also familiar with the other requirements that the first pilots placed on their watches: In addition to precision, the focus was on good readability. Therefore, pilot's watches were soon given large luminous numerals and hands.

That also proved to be practical Chronograph, for example to stop intermediate times that are accurate to the second, which the pilot needed for short-term measurements in a blind approach, for example. Orientation was provided by radio beacons. Thanks to this, the pilot knew within what time - which was then measured with the help of the chronograph - he had to bring his aircraft to a certain altitude. This is how the chronograph gained importance among pilot's watches.

Play their own role on board: observation watches

As airplanes were able to fly increasingly long distances, the clocks had another function in the cockpit: navigation. As in seafaring, determining one's position depended on three indispensable instruments: First of all, a compass should be mentioned. A sextant was also required to determine latitude. This was done by measuring the angle of the sun or a star to the horizon. The third instrument required was an accurate clock to calculate the longitude. For this purpose, one initially used large, so-called Observation watchesthat worked extremely precisely and were attached to the forearm above the mount. Because of the speed of the aircraft, the position had to be determined as quickly as possible, for which specially trained navigators - also known as observers - were responsible.

To make their work easier, so-called Dial gauges developed. Their dials were divided into degrees of arc so that the Greenwich hour angle could be read off. In 1927, the aviation pioneer Charles A. Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic in the first non-stop solo flight. This gave him the idea of ​​developing an hour angle clock together with Longines in 1931: the timepiece, inspired by the Weems clock, enabled longitude to be determined quickly, as the hour angle of Greenwich - the most important part of longitude determination - could be read directly from it . Hence the name “hour angle clock”. Longines still carries such a model in its collection to this day; Patek Philippe also built an hour angle watch in 1936.

The classic pilot's watch design

Graduated pocket watches and observation wristwatches for aviators have been produced in Germany by Walter Storz (Stowa), Wempe and IWC since the 1930s. Konrad Knirim counts the pilot chronographs from Tutima with the caliber Urofa 59 and from Hanhart with the Hanhart calibers 40 and 41 among the most attractive examples. Another popular pilot's watch is the Mark XI from IWC, first launched in 1949.

The characteristics of these watches define the type of pilot's watch or pilot's watch to this day. "Today, this is primarily used to describe design," explains Konrad Knirim. Because a pilot's watch does not need any specific functions, but rather has to show a precise rate and be quick and easy to read. Hence the claim to reduce a pilot's watch to the time display and not to associate it with any other complications other than a chronograph. The easy readability is enhanced by a black dial with a luminous display, light-colored numerals or indices and light-colored hands. A successful reminiscence of the origins of the pilot's watches and their relationship with the on-board instruments in a cockpit.

10 typical features of pilot's watches

Today all possible timepieces are summarized under the term “pilot's watch”. In the past, the military models of the forties in particular had clear design codes. Anyone looking for a suitable retro watch should know the historical specifications of this genre.

The military watches of the forties as a model

Flying is one of the most impressive things that technical progress has made possible for humans. Clocks were developed for this purpose very early on. They had to be easy to read and operate under all conditions in order for the timepiece to work Purpose as a navigational tool could meet. A watch that could be used for navigation was also called an observation watch, or B watch for short.

In today's retro models, the design of the military pilot's watches from the forties is most often cited. Here you will find a particularly large number of features that ensure a high level of user comfort and thus the greatest possible safety in the cockpit. What are these elements? Basically all visible components from the dial and hands to the case and crown to the bracelet.

We explain the typical features of a pilot's watch in this video:

The pilot's watch dial:

Typical feature of a pilot's watch # 1 - matt black sheet:

The dial of a classic pilot's watch, such as that used by pilots in World War II, for example, did not reflect thanks to its matt black, mostly grained surface.

Typical feature of a pilot's watch # 2 - clearly readable display:

Even more important for legibility than the matt black dial, however, was the reduced, clearly structured time display with easily recognizable and distinguishable hour and minute indices.

Typical feature of a pilot's watch # 3 - zero index in triangular shape:

The triangular zero index was based on military specifications and should be as different as possible from the number of hours. The triangle existed both alone and in combination with two points placed on the left and right.

Typical feature of a pilot's watch # 4 - luminous material:

All indexes were covered with luminous material just as generously as the - mostly diamond-shaped - hands, which differed significantly in width and length. It goes without saying that the second hand also glowed in the dark.

Typical feature of a pilot's watch # 5 - no logo:

Last but not least, military pilot's watches did not have a logo, as this element, which is useless from a functional point of view, would only have restricted readability. An up-to-date pilot's watch that combines all the features of the dial is, for example, the mini replica from Laco. They are available in both types A and B. Both design variants were produced for the German Air Force in the 1940s. Type A was intended for pilots and corresponded to a classically simple dial with hour numbers; Model B (see picture) made it easier for navigators to work with large numbers of minutes on the edge and a small, discreet hour circle near the center.

The pilot's watch case:

Typical feature of a pilot's watch # 6 - satined surfaces:

The readability of the displays, which has been optimized in many respects, was continued in the case of classic pilot's watches: Here, too, nothing was allowed to reflect or reflect, which is why the watch shells were satined and not polished.

Typical feature of a pilot's watch # 7 - large, easy-grip crown:

The crown was large, fluted and was not allowed to lie flat against the flank of the case, which would have reduced the ease of use. Instead, it either protruded from the side of the clock or had a special shape: operating elements that tapered towards the case were just as common as the almost round onion crown.

Typical feature of a pilot's watch # 8 - large case:

The case size also determined the design. While dimensions of around 34 millimeters were common for elegant wristwatches, pilot's watches often exceeded the 40 millimeter mark; the models that Stowa, Wempe, A. Lange & Söhne and other companies produced for the planes of the German Wehrmacht even measured 55 millimeters. The large case diameter not only improved readability, but also made it easier to use, after all, the watches were worn over the aviator's suit and sometimes even strapped around the thigh. A current example is the IWCBig pilot watchthat is 46 millimeters tall.
Here you will find the ultimate overview of the pilot's watches from IWC.

The pilot's watch bracelet:

Typical feature of a pilot's watch # 9 - brown, extra-long bracelets:

The - often overly long - bracelets on classic pilot's watches were mostly made of brown, more rarely black, cowhide leather. An example of what such overlong ribbons looked like is provided by the photo of the Flieger 36 without logo from Stowa below. We took a closer look at the 40 millimeter Stowa model in a hands-on session. Read our results here.

Typical feature of a pilot's watch # 10 - metal rivets:

In order to keep the watch on the arm or leg as securely as possible, the connections on the strap bars were not only sewn, but also fixed with one or two metal rivets. The bracelet was almost always closed using a simple pin buckle. As a particularly safe alternative, there were bracelets in which the closing end consisted of two layers that were held together by a rivet at the end. The pin buckle was threaded between the layers of the strap so that the watch could never fall to the ground, even if the buckle was unintentionally opened against all odds. In these elaborately designed bracelets, a metal eyelet often complemented the conventional leather strap loops.

Pilot watches today

The ten features mentioned were and are not only of great use to actual aviators and pilots, but also in everyday life. Anyone who buys a timepiece in the classic pilot's watch design today benefits from good readability and high ease of use - not to mention the awareness that they have acquired a successful retro watch. In fact, all of the properties mentioned can be found in today's pilot's watches, right down to the extremely large cases that the manufacturer Laco still offers. However, these have become quite rare, after all, watches are now worn in the conventional way on the wrist and no longer over the jacket or trousers.
The other design codes are implemented if they fit into the design concept of the new watch and ignored as soon as the manufacturers want to achieve something different. A bezel can be polished or a bracelet made of alligator leather. The brands operate according to the motto “What is allowed is allowed.” Most retro fans, however, are likely to like authenticity best.

Pilot's watches today: TESTAF - technical standard for pilot's watches

In July 2012, theTESTAF (Technical Standard Pilot's Watches) initiated by the aerospace engineering department of the Aachen University of Applied Sciences in cooperation with Sinn. It represents the first engineering-based catalog of requirements and tests for pilot's wristwatches in professional use.

With the TESTAF, the uncompromisingly high demands placed on the equipment of airplanes and helicopters are transferred to wristwatches. Compliance with the TESTAF ensures that a wrist pilot's watch can completely replace the timing instruments in the aircraft for the pilot. To do this, the watch has to pass numerous tests with regard to readability, rate and various physical loads. It basically changes from a pilot's watch to an on-board instrument.

In addition, the German Institute for Standardization decided in summer 2013 to create a new standard for pilot's watches.

For the TESTAF project, a working group “Fliegeruhren” was founded in which well-known companies and institutions collaborated - FH Aachen as the engineering testing institute, DNV GL (formerly Det Norske Veritas and Germanischer Lloyd) as the certification institute, Lufthansa Cargo and Airbus Helicopters as users, the editorial team of UHREN-MAGAZIN as well as several watch manufacturers. In October 2015, the responsible working committee released two parts of the standard - Part 1: Requirements and tests and Part 2: Conformity assessment - for publication. The standard came into force in March 2016.

Pilot's watches today: The DIN standard 8330 for pilot's watches

Since 2016 there has been a DIN standard for pilot's watches for the first time: DIN 8330. Watches that comply with this standard can completely replace the time measuring instruments available in the aircraft for the pilot in an emergency. They are not impaired by the physical stresses of flight operations and do not represent a potential hazard. In addition, they are compatible with the other on-board instruments of the aircraft. As a result, the pilot's watch is on the one hand traced back to its origin as a timepiece with special functional and technical features, and on the other hand it is defined according to the requirements of modern aviation. Neutral institutions and all institutions approved according to DIN EN ISO / IEC 17065, such as SEACOTEC from Hamburg, can certify. The first DIN-compliant pilot's watches are the 857 UTC VFR from Sinn Spezialuhren and the Flieger DIN Professional from Stowa.
Mainly on the initiative of the technology-oriented Frankfurter Sinn Spezialuhren GmbH, DIN decided in summer 2013 to create a standard for pilot's watches for the first time. A working group was founded in which well-known companies and institutions collaborated - the Aachen University of Applied Sciences as an engineering testing institute, DNV GL (formerly Det Norske Veritas and Germanischer Lloyd) as the certification institute, Lufthansa Cargo and Airbus Helicopters as users and as manufacturers Sinn Spezialuhren, Stowa, Laco and Glashütte Original. In October 2015, the responsible DIN working committee approved the standard for publication, and it came into force in March 2016.

Stowa: Flieger DIN Professional


You can find a current selection of pilot's watches in our gallery:

The Spirit pilot's watch collection presented by Longines in 2020 combines modern and historical design elements
The IWC Pilot’s Watch Chronograph Top Gun Edition "SFTI" is nicknamed the Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor Program of the US Navy. The suffix SFTI is the abbreviation of this school for the elite of Navy jet pilots.
The Stowa Flieger type "B" Black Forest Limited in a classic pilot's watch design
With the Startimer Pilot Heritage Automatic, Alpina presents a pilot's watch with a classic look. The model has a large, fluted crown and a matt black dial with an orientation triangle at twelve.
Thanks to the massive crown, fluted pushers and protruding bezel riders, the 48 millimeter Breitling Super Avenger Chronograph can be safely operated even with pilot gloves.
The Hamilton Khaki Aviation Converter has a GMT and slide rule function.
The latest variant of the classic pilot's chronograph from Sinn Spezialuhren is completely green.
The Tutima Flieger with a gray gradient dial is easy to read even at night thanks to the luminous material on the hands and indexes.
The Star fi ghter Pilot Radium from Guinand is based on the legendary Bundeswehr chronograph from Heuer from the 1960s.
In 1940, Hanhart went into series production with a chronograph which was noticeable for the different distances between pushers and crown and had a red zero-setting pushbutton and a rotating bezel with red marking. On the occasion of the 80th anniversary of this model, the Black Forest brand is launching the Pioneer MK II 80th anniversary.

Continuously updated article, originally posted in September 2014.


Keywords: Breitling, Breitling Navitimer, Cartier watches, pilot's watches, Hamilton watches, Hanhart, IWC pilot's watch, Laco pilot's watch, Longines, military watches, Seiko, Sinn 857, Stowa pilot, TeStaF, Tutima, Wempe watches, Zenith Pilot, Zenith watches
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