A watch as an important part of a pilot’s toolkit. An accurate timepiece is not only convenient but is actually a legally mandated instrument that pilots need to carry. Pilot watches need to be accurate and hold time, be easy to read quickly under pressure and in dim lighting (or the dark), and of course, they should look good!
The need for a pilot watch
Some of my most enjoyable training flights have involved low-level navigation exercises where I had flown over 500km using only a map, a compass, and my watch, and some basic mental arithmetic to hit a time-on-target to within the second.
The dynamic nature of flight means we are always moving. Understanding speed and velocity are a critical part of a pilot’s job in navigating the aircraft. If you know you have a certain distance to fly, and you are flying at a set speed, then you know exactly (down to the second) how long it will take you to reach your next waypoint and eventually your destination.
This becomes a critical task when flying low-level navigation or time on target sortie, de-conflicting with other aircraft in the airspace or when flying under the instrument flight rules and providing accurate time estimates to air traffic control. So it makes sense then, that an accurate and easy to read pilot watch is such an important part of the job
Using your watch vs the aircraft clock
Most modern aircraft use sophisticated computers and navigation suites called Flight Management Systems (or an FMS for short) to help the pilot safely and efficiently navigate the aircraft. These often combine information from multiple sources such as aircraft sensors, on-board computers, inertial navigation systems, and GPS navigation systems that communicate and synchronize with satellites that utilize extremely accurate atomic clocks.
Whilst the FMS can provide an extremely accurate GPS time, it is still important that a pilot carries an accurate watch to cross-check it, and as a backup, in case the system fails. And a pilot’s job isn’t just in the cockpit – they still have to manage quite a busy schedule and crew duty limitations which often begin the moment they start duty or leave the crew hotel, all of which need to be managed with close reference to the time.
Watches often need to be reset, or ‘hacked’ to the correct time as all watches will have a small timing error. The higher quality the watch, the less often it will need to be ‘hacked’. In military fast jet squadrons, all of the pilots will come together in a morning brief – the first thing that happens is that everyone will synchronize their watches by hacking them when instructed by the presenter. This ensures that everyone is ‘running off the same sheet of music’ when it comes to activities like meetings, events or formation engine starts. It’s even more important for time-critical in-flight activities like split formation rendezvous points, airdrop or bombing/strikes.
What should a good pilot’s watch do
- Keep time accurately to within a few seconds each day
- Have a traditional analog display with a large second timer
- Have a simple, decluttered face that is easy to read quickly in dim lighting or at night
- Be hard wearing and not break
- Have a chronometer (adjustable outer dial) functionality
- Be able to set multiple time zones
- Be able to set a timer or alarm
- Be lightweight and slim profile so they don’t catch on anything in the cockpit or during the walk around
The best 3 pilot watches for any budget
There are many kinds of pilot watches out there, and in this article will examine some of the most common types of pilot watches. Like other types of watches, you can pretty much pay as much or as little as you want. To some extent, fashion has influenced pilot watches, and there are expensive watches like Rolex’s which some pilots wear as jewelry as a status symbol. More commonly though, pilots want a functional watch, which keeps very accurate time.
Best overall pilot watch – Breitling Navitimer
Top of the range pilot watches can cost tens of thousands of dollars and are precision timepiece instruments. The Breitling Navitimer is one of the world’s most highly sought after pilots watches; usually worn by professional pilots such as airline captains and fighter pilots. It is also one of the best luxury pilot watches you can buy.
The Navitimer features a world-leading mechanism meaning it holds time incredibly well, and I have seen military pilots at the squadron who never need to rehack their watches during morning brief. It is skillfully constructed and a very beautiful timepiece, something that will last not only your lifetime but that will become a family heirloom.
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Best automatic pilot watch under $500 – Citizen Eco-Drive
Good value pilot watches will provide pilots with accurate time. Most of these watches hold time extremely well, and won’t typically need to be reset for multiple days or even weeks.
The Citizen Eco-Drive is our choice for an automatic pilot watch under $500, it is a perfect combination of class and functionality. It looks great, and if looked after it should last you well over 15 years. The crystal face is incredibly lightweight and scratch-resistant, and the bands are durable and can be interchanged as you see fit
Personally, I use a leather band on my watch as this is the safest when it comes to fire – it won’t heat up and burn my wrist, the leather will actually protect me. For those opting for a metal band, it is easy to fit them to this watch using your bare hand and a ballpoint pen, but really you should use a link tool or get a watch specialist to do so.
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Best aviator watch under $200 – Casio G-Shock
Pilot watches don’t need to break the budget, and a number of cheaper watches fulfill all the criteria of a suitable pilot watch, are highly functional and look great.
The Casio G-shock is a common choice amongst military and General aviation pilots due to its low cost, extreme robustness, waterproofing, and accurate timekeeping. It also has great functionality with the ability to set a digital time in Zulu and multiple timezones and has a timer, stopwatch and alarm functions. For this reason, the Casio G shock is our best pick and is a fantastic watch for pilots looking for an aviator watch under $200.
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Hopefully, we’ve helped you decide on a new watch for your flying career. Remember, a good watch will last you your lifetime and will be a hallmark by which your fellow pilots will judge you.