What Is An Aviator Watch & What Watches Do Pilots Really Wear?

airline pilot in tapping watchThere are a lot of stereotypes associated with pilots, the professed playboys of the sky. Whether flying commercial flights or working privately, pilots have a reputation for being roguish figures and risk-takers with style to burn.

This reputation is owed a great deal to the mid-20th century when the industry was even more of a boys’ club than it is now.

Nowadays, even though the profession has changed dramatically both demographically and in terms of regulations, some stereotypes persist. For instance, pilots still tend to be thought of as stylish, well-heeled travelers with a lot of flash and sophistication.

The picture of a pilot in a pair of mirror sunglasses, a leather jacket, and a flashy aviator wristwatch remains popular in the public imagination.

In truth, while aviator watches remain a trendy style of timepiece, pilots are no more likely to wear them then they are any other type of watch. So, what exactly makes a watch appeal to an aviator?

What is an aviator watch?

airline pilot checking wristwatch
Airline pilot checking the time.

In the most literal sense, an aviator watch is any watch worn by a pilot (or, an aviator). Since the years of the earliest flights, pilots have had watches as a matter of necessity. Over time, watches with certain accessories and a common style came to be known as “aviator watches,” but there is no longer one single type that fits the label.

The original aviator watches were field watches, or military watches, with generally simple white on black designs and easy to read, large dials.

The first specifically designed aviator watches were the 1930’s Flieger style from Luftwaffe which had large numerals on the face. This style of watch could have faces with diameters as large as 55mm, absolutely giant compared to most modern styles.

Though the minimal Flieger watches are still made by numerous high-end brands, these days, watches that are marketed as aviator watches usually have a plethora of accessories.

These new accessories started appearing at the height of the space race in the 1950s and 60s when advances in flight technology allowed pilots to fly longer and farther.

Aviator Watch Features:

Photo Credit: Martin Bardal

The first adaptation to the traditional aviator watch was the addition of a second 24-hour hand that allowed pilots to track their flight time against the standard Greenwich Mean Time while also updating the 12-hour hand for local time zones.

Worn by Air Force pilots and NASA astronauts, these aviator watches became must-have fashion items for the general public, with the Omega Speedmaster becoming a genuine sensation in the 60s.

Over the years, aviator watches have gotten increasingly busy on their faces, with the addition of chronographs, tachymeters, altimeters, compasses, and other navigation tools. These features or “tools” also land pilot watches in a group of timepieces called “Tool Watches” used by special forces, divers, sailors and other enthusiasts who use their watch for navigation or other measurements.

Citizen makes a line of “Hawk” aviator watches that include a circular slide rule that can be used for doing mid-air calculations of fuel and distance. 

All modern planes will have similar types of dials or displays for measuring and tracking relevant data, but it never hurts to have a back-up.

Even if a pilot never has a need to use any of the features of their watches (and they probably hope they don’t), at least these timepieces are impressive to look at. 

Well-Known Aviator Watches:

If you were looking to buy that special pilot in your life a nice birthday or anniversary gift, an aviator watch is always a great idea. It makes for a unique and stylish present that they would surely cherish. Let’s take a look at a couple of good aviator or pilot-inspired watches that will make a big impression.

Omega Men's 31130423001005 Speedmaster Analog Display Mechanical Hand Wind Silver Watch
Omega Men’s Speedmaster

First, there is the classic Omega Speedmaster Professional, the first wristwatch on the moon.

Worn by Buzz Aldrin for the Apollo 11 moon landing, this watch continues to be the epitome of sophistication, functionality, and cool.

This stainless-steel classic will set you back a pretty penny, but with that price, you’re getting a watch reliable enough to fly to the moon and back.

Citizen Men's Eco-Drive Promaster Nighthawk Dual Time Watch with Date, BJ7000-52E
Citizen Men’s Eco-Drive Nighthawk

If you would like a timepiece that’s a little kinder to your pocketbook, there is the Eco-Drive Promaster Nighthawk by Citizen.

This stainless-steel watch has a 43mm face, Japanese quartz movement, multiple dials and accessories for your air travel needs, and the aforementioned slide rule function. This watch also utilizes a solar cell for power.

Laco Type A Dial Miyota Automatic Pilot Watch 861688
Laco Type A

Going the other direction in terms of style, there is Laco’s Type A Dial Miyota, a German-made watch with a classic, simple look.

This self-winding watch has a 42mm face and little else in terms of flashy accessories.

The Type A is a true throwback to the original Flieger style and will make your favorite pilot look like they just stepped out of history.

These three watches represent the spectrum of watches that are considered modern aviator watches.

For pilots who simply need a reliable timepiece and style isn’t a big concern, there is no shortage of non-aviator options that will do the job, many of which can be found for less than $100. 

If you’re looking for a durable and rugged watch, something like these G-Shock watches would be a good place to start, these tactical watches are designed for military duty so should be more than enough for the rigors of commercial flight. 

Do pilots wear aviator watches?

pilot looking at watchEven though the modern aviator watch is often marketed as the ideal tool for pilots, in reality, these watches probably find a greater audience with regular, non-flying purchasers. There are a couple of different reasons for why you often won’t find an aviator watch on a pilot’s wrist.

The first is, as we said above, even though the accessories are cool and useful, it’s rare that a pilot will ever be in a situation where they will actually need them.

Planes are so high-tech and sophisticated these days, aviator watches are little more than quaint throwbacks to a simpler, less computer-oriented time.

That doesn’t mean some pilots couldn’t still find a use for an aviator watch, but most will never use them for anything but timekeeping.

The second reason pilots aren’t the primary target for aviator watches is that all of those accessories and fancy designs usually come with a hefty price tag.

Like most professionals, air pilots have seen their wages decline over the last couple of generations, with their pay not keeping up with inflation. Under these current economic realities, a high-priced wristwatch is a luxury in every meaning of the word.

Still, even though aviator watches are more about style than necessity these days, they’ll always be a welcome accessory for that special pilot in your life.

Whatever your budget and timekeeping needs, the best aviator watches find a way to blend classic looks and styles with modern technology. They also appeal to a lot more than just aviators, so whether you’re the pilot or a passenger, consider an aviator watch for your next timepiece and enjoy the friendly skies.