In the hierarchy of coolness, pilots are the pinnacle. There’s a reason pretty much every cinematic secret agent, action hero and whip-bearing archaeologist gets behind a stick and rudder. By extension, pilot stuff is cool. “Remove Before Flight” keychains. Aviator sunglasses. And yes, pilot watches. But what does a pilot actually need in a watch?
It boils down to three requirements. Two if you don’t want to wrist a smartwatch.
A Clean, High-Contrast Watch Face
Time is a critical commodity in an aircraft. From the moment you start up the engines you have a finite amount of time to accomplish the task of taking off, flying somewhere and landing safely.
There are no gas stations in the sky. In the event you need an unplanned refueling stop, you need to recognize that fact no less than 30 minutes before the tank gets critically low.
Keeping track of when the engines started, how long you took to taxi around to the runway and how long you’ve been in the air is critical to ensuring that you can get back on the ground before the engine stops. You need an efficient and reliable method of timekeeping.
The National Business Aviation Association ranks “task saturation” as one of its top 10 safety concerns. When a flight becomes “busy,” a pilot can’t afford any delay, uncertainty or mistake on the temporal front. A high contrast watch face is the way to go. Its at-a-glance-ability makes time-telling quick and easy – as it should be.
[Technically speaking, the FAA requires a cockpit clock in all instrument rated aircraft. Unfortunately, it isn’t always conveniently located (in a Cessna 172, it’s usually a secondary function of the thermometer).]
When you start operating in an IFR or Instrument Flight Rules environment, keeping track of time is even more mission critical. (IFR basically means flying without being able to see what’s outside the cockpit.) IFR flying requires precise coordination with air traffic control.
In instances where you aren’t popping up on radar screens, ATC (Air Traffic Control) will ask you to make regular position reports. Those reports must occur on a regular schedule, requiring precise time checks.
A pilot might also be put into a holding pattern with an ”EFC” or ”Expect Further Clearance” time (a point in the future when ATC thinks you’ll be able to proceed to land). Knowing when that time has come and gone helps you know when to pester ATC, to make sure they didn’t forget about you in the stack.
In most cases, being aware of local time is good enough. Controllers talk mainly in minutes (“expect further clearance at 15 after the hour, time now 10 after”).
That said, technically speaking, everything in aviation runs off GMT (Greenwich Mean Time). Having an indication of the current GMT is useful, but not required. Again, the must-have: time at a glance, including minutes.
That’s why “real” pilot’s watches feature a black or dark blue face with large white numerals and tick marks. Your timekeeper must be instantly legible, even when the instrument panel’s generating the only ambient light.
Most watchmakers get pilot watches wrong; the face is too complicated. They add in all sorts of dials and indicators that clutter the dial. Yes, I’m looking at you Mr. Breitling Navitimer (above) and Citizen Promaster.
At least Breitling keeps things relatively simple with their integrated slide rule (which is kinda useful as an E6B flight computer). Citizen’s recent Promasters not so much. They’re a fever dream of markings and dials, nearly incoherent on the ground and downright useless in the air.
A Large, Readable Second Hand
In a ”standard rate turn” the aircraft changes heading at a rate of three degrees per second. This is generally the most comfortable turning rate – commonly referred to as a ”one G” turn.
Thanks to a mathematical quirk, in a standard rate turn you complete a full 360 degree rotation in exactly two minutes. This is extremely useful calculation, especially if you get into trouble.
All pilots, even those who aren’t instrument rated, are taught to perform a level standard rate timed turn (the ability to turn the aircraft around just by looking at the instruments, without looking outside). Start your clock, maintain a three degree turn and level out when one minute has passed.
If a pilot suddenly finds themselves in an unexpected cloud bank, they can use this process to turn around and get out of trouble. Failure to perform the maneuver is the number one killer of non-instrument rated pilots.
Even for instrument rated pilots, the timed turn is an important feature. When things get busy at an airport or when the weather temporarily degrades, a pilot may find him or herself stuck in a “holding pattern” – flying in circles until ATC lets then proceed.
Each end of the racetrack is a 180 degree (one minute) turn. For piston-powered aircraft, each “leg” or straightaway of the pattern is supposed to be exactly one minute long (jet aircraft typically get distances instead, such as “ten mile legs”).
The pattern should take four minutes to complete one full revolution. Or about $12 per lap if you want to get depressed about the cost of aviation.
Ideally, pilots want a watch with the second hand attached to the main barrel of the timepiece – big and easily visible – circumnavigating the dial. If the second hand is prominent on the watch face, it can be read at a glance, even with your hand on the stick.
You might think a stopwatch-style second hand would be ideal. For some pilots that’s true. The ability to start and stop the second hand when needed, and reset it when they pass over the hold point, is useful.
I prefer a second hand that’s constantly in motion. I find it easier to simply remember where the second hand started and use geometry to figure out when I need to turn. For me, pressing the button on the watch for each lap is one more thing to do when I’m already close to task saturation.
Barometer, SpO2, GPS
Aviation-oriented wrist-borne computers (a.k.a, smartwatches) cram a lot of pilot-friendly functionality into their processors.
- Barometer: Altitude can be determined either by GPS or by calibrated barometric pressure. Having a barometer on your watch provides a backup altitude indicator. It can alert you when there’s not enough oxygen at your altitude and you should switch to supplemental air.
- SpO2: Pilots need to be sharp-witted and clear thinking. Mental acuity degrades with lower oxygen levels at higher altitudes. A smartwatch with an SpO2 function can let you know when you need to grab some oxygen or switch to a lower altitude.
- GPS: If your aircraft is a bit older, having another GPS source in the cockpit can help determine your position.
Garmin’s D2 Air is a smart choice for pilots who want these features. The downside: a lot of money, a lot of button pressing and a pressing need to make sure it’s fully charged before flight. [Click here for my review.]
TTAW Pilot’s Watch Recommendations
Here are five perfect non-smartwatch pilot’s watches, from the least to the most expensive. [NB: TTAW is a fully independent website. We don’t receive a commission on any watches.]
Timex Weekender – $41.99
Clean. Simple. Easy-to-read. This watch meets all the criteria above, glows in a darkened cockpit and takes a licking and keeps on ticking.
Citizen Promaster Nighthawk – $296
I wore this watch for my private pilot exam, my instrument exam and my wedding day. The dial is a bit crowded and busy, but it still looks fantastic and it’s clearly readable in a hurry.
The addition of a GMT indicator on the watch face and a full E6B flight computer around the dial makes it useful beyond telling time.
Tissot Chrono XL – $375
I love the clean black dial, the easy-to-read watch face and the easy-to-use stopwatch. This is quickly becoming my daily beater, given the watch’s comely face, light weight and inexpensive price.
Hamilton Khaki Field Titanium Auto – $945
If you want a mechanical pilot’s watch that doesn’t cost mortgage money, the Hamilton Khaki Field Auto is a solid choice. It’s legitimately useful in the cockpit and unmistakably handsome on the wrist. I love the clearly visible tip on the seconds hand and the clean dial.
Breitling Navitimer 8 Automatic 41 – $4k
This is the watch I’m lusting after. It’s blessed with a beautiful clean face and a dependable automatic movement. As soon as I have enough cash to justify the purchase, the BN8A41 is my new Up In The Air Junior Birdmen wrist buddy.
Military pilots are always going to want a second time zone display for “Zulu” time. You’ll also find many of us shy away from smart watches given we can’t take “emitting” devices on board the aircraft or planning areas.