Bulova Lunar Pilot Review

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The interwebz watch forums got me again. A watch I would have otherwise never heard of jumped to front and center of my obsession. This time it was the Bulova “Lunar Pilot.” A forum member posted a photo of his in a “WRUW” (what are you wearing) thread, and I had to know what it was. I am weak! And so began the furious late night internet hunt for more information . . .

It turns out that the Bulova Lunar Pilot story is quite the Space Oddity.

The only “Moon Watch” is Omega! Negative, Ghostrider

OMEGA has long and proudly claimed to be the “only watch worn on the moon.” For years, we’ve accepted this as gospel – a Unique Selling Proposition (USP) that couldn’t be matched.

In 2015, a different story emerged. Apollo 15 Mission Commander David Scott was wearing his NASA-issued Omega Speedmaster when the watch suffered a spontaneous “major malfunction.”  The crystal popped out during EVA #2 (extravehicular activity a.k.a., “moon walk”).

He asked permission from NASA to use his personal back-up watch for EVA #3. Roger that, Falcon. His back-up watch was a Bulova prototype that didn’t make the NASA cut (OMEGA won the contract). The prototype was gifted to him by Bulova.

Since OMEGA watches were government issue, they were returned (and reportedly reside in the Smithsonian). Commander Scott kept his Bulova and stuck it in a safe deposit box. In 2015, he decided to auction it off. It fetched $1.6m. That’s when the light bulb went on at Bulova Headquarters. They produced a replica watch and sent it to market.

Bulova wanted to call it a “Moon Watch,” but OMEGA objected, trademarks and all. So it became the “Lunar Pilot.” Another “Bulova moment.”

Some horological pedants fuss about it being a quartz movement as opposed to the mechanical movement of Commander Scott’s prototype Bulova. (More later about why quartz is cool with this watch.)

Some WIS (watch idiot savants) think it’s “too big” at 45mm across and 52mm lug-to-lug. It IS a big watch. But it’s an astronaut watch! It’s supposed to be big and highly legible. For reference, my wrist (above) is 7″.

Dark side of the moon v2.0

Earlier this year, our own Robert Farago wrote, “OMEGA Moonwatch – Buy Something Else!

Yes, sir! While Commander Scott’s watch had a stainless steel finish, I chose the black colorway for my Lunar Pilot. It’s available on any number of online dealer sites. (It’s not showing on the Bulova website at the time of writing.) The stainless finished model is still on the Bulova website.

Given the price, Bulova Lunar Pilot’s watch is impressive, as is the box. It comes on a nice faux leather pillow, nestled in a box with satin pulls. The warranty card, instructions, and a booklet on the history of the watch designed to go to the moon lie under the top layer.

Combined with white indices and pencil-shaped hands, the black dial is uber legible. The dial offers quite a bit of depth with a raised tachymeter rehaut under the crystal. The chapter ring and subdial faces are a step below the main dial face. Hour indices are applied to the main dial face. Combined, these features create a pleasing 3D relief.

The back of the watch is inscribed with a tribute to the Apollo 15 mission, including the specific location on the moon where the Bulova was worn.

The crystal, prominently protruding from the top of the case, is worrisome to some of the prolific hand-wringers on the watch forums and groups. Others simply think it looks cool.

A “signature” feature of the Lunar Pilot: the hinged paddle chronograph buttons, presumably designed for use with space suit gloves.

The pushers have minimal play; they engage with a highly tactile click when activated. They render a “sleeker” appearance than traditional pedunculate, wart-like chronograph pushers.

The Lunar Pilot’s hands and hour indices are painted with a lume that glows bluish rather than green. It’s also weakish.

Even after a charge, it starts dim, and it finishes dim. The lume lasts through the night and remains visible . . . barely . . . when your eyes are acclimated to the dark. The lume on the chrono sweep hand serves no purpose.

Strap On, Strap Off

My biggest beef with this watch: the stock leather pseudo-NATO strap. I’m quite certain more money went into the box than the strap. Simply put: The strap is the suckage. Absolute crap. While the flimsy thin leather is supple and comfortable, it looks cheap and tends to hold kinks.

The real problem: the end of the strap has nowhere to go after threading it through the first keeper, which is fixed next to the buckle. The second keeper can slide, but it stops short of a position where the end of the strap can be secured. The tip just barely reaches it and slips out to flop around freely.

In keeping with the “moon watch” theme, I ordered a replica of the NASA Velcro strap from an outfit in England called, Kizzi. They make the straps to the exact NASA specs and even use “nylon loop tape sourced from 1970’s U.S. Defense Supply Agency stock.”

It should be a good piece of kit. Unfortunately, my shipment got hung up in UK postal limbo for a couple of weeks. (I’ll add photos when it arrives.) In the meantime, I ordered a few straps from Amazon. The $27 Barton leather strap is very comfortable and the keepers work.

Update with the Kizzi NASA-spec strap:

From the Kizzi website:  “Made with original vintage loop tape of exactly the same type used on Apollo and Skylab missions, this is the official short NASA watchband shown in design drawing SEB12100030 as “-210” at 11½ ins and (for Apollos 14 & 15 only) “-209″ at 9½ ins length. Nylon loop tape sourced from 1970’s U.S. Defense Supply Agency stock.”

What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?

The quartz movement in the Lunar Pilot isn’t just any quartz movement. The typical quartz movement uses a crystal vibrating at 32,768 cycles per second. The Bulova branded “Precisionist” movement uses an “ultra-high frequency” quartz crystal. It vibrates at eight times the rate of a traditional crystal: 262,288 cycles per second, or 262 kHz.

This provides two benefits. First the central second hand (for the chrono) sweeps like that of a mechanical watch, instead of a single step per second. Secondly, the movement is rated at +/-10 seconds per YEAR. Compare that to the +/- 15 seconds per month common for traditional 32 kHz quartz movements.

All This Science, I Don’t Understand

The Lunar Pilot’s chronograph is of limited practical value. The central seconds hand measures the seconds in chronograph mode. The subdial on the right (3 o’clock) measures 1/20th of a second. The left subdial (9 o’clock) measures minutes, up to 60.

Because the scale of the minute subdial has 60 divisions, it’s a bit difficult to read with precision, even with my readers. The bottom subdial (6 o’clock) is a “small seconds” for the current time.

The original Bulova prototype “moon watch” had a 12-hour chronograph subdial at the bottom and a 30-minute subdial on the right. That would have been more useful, even here on Earth.

Walking on the Moon

Until now, owning a piece of horological space history would cost you over five grand (OMEGA Speedmaster “Moon Watch”). Today, you can own the “other moon watch” for three hundred and change. Strap it on, get your astronaut on, while singing “I hope my watch don’t break, walking on the moon.” Like Scott’s OMEGA.  

Model: Bulova “Lunar Pilot” Model #98A186
Price paid:
$338 (Amazon)

SPECIFICATIONS:
Case:
Matte black ion-plated stainless steel.
Crystal: Sapphire (flat).
Strap: Leather.
Lume: Hands and hour indices.
Dimensions / weight
: 52 x 45 x 13.5-mm / 112 grams (with leather strap)
Movement: 262 kHz (Ultra-High Frequency) quartz
Accuracy: +/- 10 seconds per year.
Battery life: ~2 years.
Water resistance: 50 meters.
Functions: Analog hours, minutes, small seconds. 60-minute chronograph. Tachymeter.

RATINGS (out of five stars):

Design * * * * *
There’s a reason it resembles the OMEGA Speedmaster: both watches were designed to meet the same NASA specs. It’s a big astronaut watch and it’s almost perfect.

Legibility * * *
White-on-black is as easy as it gets to read. Lume could be better. The chronograph minute subdial is hard to read.

Comfort * * * *
Because of the wayward strap end the stock strap is effectively disposable. Fortunately, there are plenty of aftermarket straps that can fix that problem.

Overall * * * *
A mechanical movement would be more “authentic” (and certainly far more expensive). The Lunar Pilot’s super-accurate 262 kHz quartz makes up for that. It’s a genuine part of space history attainable to those who can’t afford the $5k Speedmaster.

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9 COMMENTS

  1. In the top photo, the black model shows a flattened crown while the silver has slimmer (more authentic) pushers plus an apparent date function and a different brand font. Is that marketing update error?
    One of my objections to chrono’s is the pushers looking like sprouting mushrooms. This rocker switch design is both sleeker and easier to use.
    I wonder if the crown end in polished as a stylistic or materials/processes choice. Leather NATO’s have never made sense to me, except maybe for fixed lugs.

    • I made that image at the top with photoshop… that’s not Bulova’s image. 🙂

      Good question. The answer: Fans asked Bulova to update the design to delete the date window, making it more “authentic.” Same thing with the logo.

      To my knowledge (limited as it is), the pushers are the same. The “slimmer” pushers on the stainless version may be a result of the way I selected and cut the image in Photoshop. Same goes with the crown. I’m a Photoshop amateur.

      If you look at the other photos of my black Lunar Pilot, you’ll see the crown is rounded, not flat as shown in the top photo. Photoshop user error. 🙂

      I agree with you about traditional chrono pushers. They don’t “blend,” and they look vulnerable to me (to snag on stuff).

  2. Nice back story. Never really liked chronographs and pushers have been one of my reasons. I have not had exposure to this design, cool and in nice contrast to Farago’s recent review of the Graham watches. I find those pushers fun for their opposite extreme.

    I know I could look it up, but what was the accuracy of the original Speedmaster? I’m guessing Commander Scott’s Bulova prototype also had similar accuracy. This accuracy had to be ENOUGH for moon travel so I’m guessing having the current 262 kHz quartz is just “because we can” and the more accurate the better even though it’s not true to the original?

    Finally, I would appreciate more references to the WIS in future commentaries.

    • Thanks for reading and your comment! No idea on the accuracy of the original mechanical moon watches.

      I will say that I really like the idea of a set-and-forget watch. That’s why I like my solar-atomic Casios so much.

      That a $330 watch can have +/- 10 seconds per YEAR accuracy without syncing with the atomic clock by radio signal (completely independent) is quite remarkable. I’m tracking my Lunar Pilot on my Atomic Clock & Watch Accuracy app. It’s only been a week, so not very long… but, it’s dead nuts at 0, so far. It’s effectively a set-and-forget watch at 10 s/y.

      So, I’m willing to forgive the quartz movement. That’s not to mention that it makes the watch more affordable. I think this watch is a home run, especially when the alternative goes for over $5,000 and even into the five-figure zone, depending on the specific model from Omega.

      • The fact of the matter is that there’s nothing to forgive about the quartz movement. A mechanical watch will never, not now or in the future, outdo a quartz movement on accuracy. Any horological arrogance concerning mechanical movements is steeped in total bullshit if there is any question related to that issue. Keep trying to push the envelope on escapement design, nonmagnetic materials, spring drive systems and what have you to improve the accuracy of the mechanical watch if you want. Kudoos to those who can get that extra 1-2 seconds per month/year, I’m sure it IS a difficult, technical improvement. But your $330 time keeping device will still be more accurate than any $500,000 watch available.

        • By “forgive,” I meant that I don’t care about the watch being IDENTICAL to be “authentic.”

          Hell… if I wanted a TRULY “authentic” version of the watch, I would have ponied up the $1.6M for the actual watch. Those arguing about “authenticity” are really talking about a different level of compromise… their definition being “better” than ours.

          This isn’t a “re-issue” watch, since the original was a one-off prototype. This is a first issue, in my book.

          I really dig the 262 kHz quartz movement. I see it as a bonus rather than a compromise.

          For $330… close enough for me! LOL!

  3. […] dead models is even more satisfying than scarfing a new watch from an authorized watch dealer. The Lunar Pilot initiated me into the magical realm of Bulova. And then one of their discontinued models called to […]

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