What Is A Pilot Watch; Definition And Features

A wristwatch is a common sight nowadays, but there’s an immense amount of variety between them all. One of those variants is a pilot watch, but what is a pilot watch?

A pilot watch is a watch specifically designed to aid pilots. Some features of a pilot watch are a large and easy to read dial, an oversized crown, and a watch face with luminosity so you can even read the face in the dark.

Besides being extremely useful and looking great, a pilot watch is also believed to be one of, if not the first wristwatch ever. There’s a lot to this type of watch, which will all be covered in this article!

What Is A Pilot Watch And What Are Its Defining Features

A pilot watch is a watch made with the needs of pilots in mind. As a pilot, a normal watch might not be the most beneficial, especially back in the day, but we’ll go more in-depth on the history of pilot watches a little later on.

Pilot watches were originally created out of necessity. Nowadays, though, they’re extremely popular under the ‘normal’ folk and are often used as a normal wristwatch. And they’re quite popular too! A pilot watch is one of the more popular watch types due to its beautiful design and great functions.

Originally, these watches were created to aid pilots. To do this, the watch had to have some features that would make the life of a pilot easier.

1. A Large And Easy To Read Face

A large face is probably one of the most defining features of a pilot watch. As a pilot, you’re busy with many different things to keep the plane in the air and on course.

In order to not distract from all the other tasks of a pilot, a large and easy to read face will let you take a quick look at your watch to get the time. And due to the face being large, you’ll easily be able to see everything you need. No need for a second look or having to look for longer than necessary.

In order to aid this, even more, most pilot watches feature a dark face with contrasting hands and numbers. The numbers used are usually Arabic as well (Arabic numbers are the numbers we use every day (1-9)). This way, you can read the time with a simple glance at your watch, in both good and bad weather, during both the day and night.

2. A Large Crown

Another defining feature of a pilot watch has to be the larger crown. The crown is used for many of a watch’s features. And seeing that pilots back in the day always wore gloves, a larger crown would make it much easier to manipulate.

Nowadays, though, gloves aren’t always used. The main reason for gloves back in the day was the fact that the cockpit wasn’t heated. This lead to some seriously cold cockpits that simply required gloves. Nowadays, the cockpits are heated, so the crucial need for gloves is no longer there.

Just like aviation itself, a pilot watch has gone through some serious evolution, and the larger crown is not a feature seen in many of the more modern pilot watches.

3. A Long Strap

This feature ties back to the fact that cockpits used to be unheated. Due to the extremely cold environment that pilots would find themselves in, it was necessary to be dressed properly.

This involved wearing a flying jacket. This jacket would of course cover your wrists, so the pilots used to wear their watches over their jackets. This required a larger strap in order to still fit, done with a leather strap so you can easily switch the fit of your watch.

Nowadays, though, this isn’t really something you’ll find back in a modern pilot watch. When you purchase a watch, the watch will be measured to fit nicely on your wrist. Of course, you won’t be getting a watch that’s way too large or won’t fit properly!

4. A Face That Would Luminate In The Dark

A face that would illuminate in the dark is one of those ‘quality of life’ additions. This feature kind of links back to the large and easy to read face as well.

We all know that some flights take place at night, and at night, a watch can be more difficult to read. To help this, the numbers and hands of your watch would usually glow in the dark so you can easily read your watch, even when it’s pitch black.

The History Behind Pilot Watches

Now that we know some of the defining features of a pilot watch, let’s take a look at why they were created in the first place!

Back in the late 19th and early 20th century, most people wore a pocket watch. In fact, some argue that the classic wristwatch we know of today hadn’t even been around. Instead, people used to strap their pocket watch around their wrist.

This, of course, would lead to innovations taking place. In 1904, Cartier designed the Cartier Santos, named after Alberto Santos-Dumont, the person that requested such a watch. This watch was a wristwatch, allowing the pilot Alberto Sants-Dumont to keep time without having to get his watch out of his pocket.

The Cartier Santos was a true piece of innovation and some even see it as the first actual wristwatch. Crazy to think that the most commonly worn watches originate all the way back to the needs of pilots.

Over time, however, a pilot watch has changed a lot. Aviation and technology are changing every day and a pilot watch needed to meet different demands all the time.

As mentioned before, cockpits used to not be heated, making the cockpit an extremely cold place where you need to be dressed properly. This isn’t an issue nowadays, so the need for a larger strap is gone. The need for a large face is still here and is actually one of the few defining features of a pilot watch that’s still seen today.

With all the advances in technology, the need for specific pilot watches will undoubtedly decrease, as most features will probably be incorporated in the cockpit, but that doesn’t mean that a pilot watch will no longer have a use.

What Makes A Pilot Watch Different From Normal Watches

Some of the main differences between pilot watches and ‘regular’ watches have been discussed above. Think of the larger face, illuminating qualities, and larger crowns.

However, with the ever-changing environments of aviation, the need for a specific watch decreases. In fact, there have been so many changes made to a pilot watch that it’s actually very difficult to spot one in today’s market.

The most common giveaway would be the name, as most watches have some sort of aviation term in it. IWC’s Big Pilot and Breitling’s Navitimer are both pilot watches.

As mentioned before, the best giveaway, besides the name, is the larger face. This is an aesthetic feature that has luckily not gone away. Besides having it carry a piece of history with it, it also just looks fantastic.

With the larger face usually also comes a larger crown. This is yet another giveaway of a classic pilot watch that’s still around.

One thing to keep in mind with pilot watches is that these are not weird or different watches. Some of the most popular watches in the world are actually pilot watches. Think of an Omega Speedmaster or a Rolex GMT-Master II. These are both pilot watches and are both incredibly popular.

Closing Words

A pilot watch is a watch born out of necessity, specifically for pilots. As the name suggests, a pilot watch is made to aid pilots and it does this with some specific features such as a larger face, illuminating hands and numbers, larger straps, and larger crowns.

Nowadays, though, most of these features are no longer the necessity they used to be. Technology continues to advance and things that used to be key are no longer necessary.

This advance in technology sparked many evolutions in pilot watches to the point where they’re actually very difficult to spot. The main giveaways would be in the name or the larger face and crown.

Even though a pilot watch is no the necessity it once was, they’re still incredibly popular. Pilot watches are loved for their larger faces and gorgeous aesthetics and some of the most popular watches are actually pilot watches!

Jasper Pieterse

Hi all! My name is Jasper and I'm an avid watch fan. On this site, I'd like to share my experiences!

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