Pilot’s watches are as popular as they are, not because there are a tremendous number of pilots in the general population, but simply because there are a lot of us in love with the idea of flying. And not flying in the way most of us fly nowadays. I’ve probably logged more miles in the air than Charles Lindbergh, but it’s been a completely passive experience. Air travel today is deliberately engineered either to make you wish you were almost anywhere else (in economy) or to distract you as much as possible (in business class) from the reality of being shot through the air in an aluminum tube, miles above the Earth, with several hundred strangers who are hoping as hard as you are that the crew up front knows what they’re doing, and that the aircraft can be relied on to not shed a wing in mid-flight. (I have an especially vivid memory of a flight to Las Vegas a few years ago and a patch of very nasty clear air turbulence over the Rocky Mountains; the plane shook as if Thor were applying his hammer to the fuselage and an elderly woman in the row ahead of me finally said, plaintively, “I hope this plane is made good!”)
No, the kind of flying we’d like to do is the kind where we’re in the driver’s seat – where instead of being passengers, we’re in control, with just our skill, steady nerves, and knowledge to guarantee that we make it intact from point A to point B. White silk scarves, goggles, flight jackets, the sound of a propeller driven by a supercharged aircraft engine shredding the air, and yes, the nerves-of-steel atmosphere of aerial combat, are all part of the appeal. Of course, none of those things are features, nowadays, of modern civil aviation (well, the propellers are still around, but if you’re taking your Beechcraft Bonanza out to the Vineyard for the weekend, nobody’s going to try and shoot you down on the way) but that’s the world evoked by mechanical pilot’s watches. The environment in which mechanical pilot’s watches evolved was one in which utility trumped every other consideration, and it’s precisely that singular focus that allows pilot’s watches to transcend their utilitarian origins and evoke, powerfully, a bygone world.
The original Breitling Navitimer B01 Chronograph is probably the most specific, in terms of purpose and function, of all pilot’s watches, but the term covers what’s actually a fairly diverse range of timepieces. The chronograph is strongly identified with aviation (to a significant extent, this is thanks to Breitling), but pilot’s watches can certainly be highly accurate time-only watches intended to aid in navigation (often with shielding against magnetic fields) and the category can include GMT and two-time-zone watches as well. Some of the most distinctive watches ever made were pilot’s watches, including the Longines-Weems Second-Setting watch and the Longines Hour-Angle. Like its brother-in-arms, the diver’s watch, the days of a pilot’s watch as an essential piece of gear in the cockpit are past; navigation today is a matter of GPS satellites and radar. But like diver’s watches, pilot’s watches still appeal, because the virtues of the world to which they are connected – bravery, the manifestation of hard-won skills, coolness under pressure – remain universally compelling. Behind every pilot’s watch is a dream of being, as they say, “a natural-born stick-and-rudder man.”
As any student of aviation watches knows, Breitling probably has more street cred as an aviation supplier than any other single watch manufacturer. The company started making cockpit instruments in its “Huit Aviation” department in the 1930s – its first aviation chronograph was made in 1936 (a black-dial model with radium hands and numerals). The first Chronomat, with a slide-rule bezel for general calculations, was produced in 1940 and of course, in 1952, the most famous of Breitling’s pilot watches was introduced: the Navitimer, with a bezel that’s essentially a miniaturized version of the E6B circular slide-rule flight computer (nicknamed the “whiz wheel” or “prayer wheel” by pilots) the first version of which was introduced all the way back in 1933.
The interesting thing about the E6B is that unlike a pilot’s watch, it’s still an important part of modern civil aviation – albeit more often in digital form than not, but many flight schools still train student pilots on the E6B, many aviators still like having one in the cockpit (there isn’t an experienced pilot alive who doesn’t appreciate the value of backups to essential systems) and the FAA still encourages people taking knowledge tests for their pilot’s license to bring one along.
The Breitling Navitimer 8 B01 Chronograph is a very significant departure from what many of us had come to think of as the classic look of a Navitimer – that watch is rather more busy than not, and the flight-computer bezel, while instantly recognizable, is even more of an anachronism than the mechanical flight computer on which it’s based. I imagine there must be people out there who know how to use one but I’m not one of them – I have a Navitimer on my wrist as I write; I’ve had a couple of other flight computer bezel watches over the last couple of decades (from Seiko and Citizen) and I must have taught myself how to use the bezel on all of them at least half a dozen times but absent the incentive of sharpening real world flying skills, it never sticks. However, I still like that it exists and that at least in theory, it could be used for aerial navigation if need be; this despite the fact that as the years have accumulated, I’ve gone from finding the bezel, in use, merely hard to read, to finding it almost impossible to make out without a magnifying glass and very good light. The thought of having to use one in a poorly lit cockpit, with the primary navigation systems out, and with turbulence knocking my presumably small plane around the sky, is enough to make my blood run cold.
It initially bothered a lot of people that Breitling’s new CEO, Georges Kern, introduced a family of watches with the Navitimer moniker but without the flight bezel – and I was one of them. It doesn’t bother me now though. For one thing, if you want a wrist-mounted whiz-wheel wristwatch, Breitling still has them (I count a dozen different versions in the current catalog. And for another thing, after spending some time in the cockpit of one of the most modern small private jets, I’m beginning to think that the emphasis the new Navitimer 8 B01 Chronograph places on instant legibility over the inclusion of a functionality that, in a modern aircraft, is a backup of a backup of a backup, makes a lot of sense.
Before we talk about what the Breitling Navitimer 8 B01 is like in the cockpit, let’s talk about what it’s like wearing it where most people who own one are going to wear it: on the ground.