Half duplex nerd

Watches for flying

Posted on 03 Dec 2005.

I'm close to finishing my quest for a private pilot's license, and am still looking for a good watch to wear.

From personal preference, I want to have

  1. GMT/UTC time for weather and such

  2. Timers, preferably two or more

  3. Countdown timers, for things like fuel changes

  4. Readability, under widely varying light and also with polarized sunglasses

As noted in my dive watch review, the Seiko fulfills #3, but that's about it. The Orient and Omega both do the job, or close to it. There's also the approach of a dive watch with a GMT hand, which provides 1,3 and part of 2.

However, you have to keep in mind that a fancy watch is really unnecesary. As with dive watches, the need for an elaborate flight watch with E6B slide rule and many dials is long gone. Flight watches now serve as affectations, wish fulfillment, jewelry or (rarely) functionality.

From Salon's "Ask the Pilot":

What is the purpose of the complicated watches I always see pilots wearing?

Their purpose is this: to tell them what time it is. Many pilots feel these gaudy little devices are an essential part of their uniform, perhaps a tribute to the days when goggled aviators used their watches to … I don't know. For a number of years I owned a Mickey Mouse watch as a kind of quietly irreverent protest to this practice (it also was the only kind I could afford). My red-bezeled Swiss Army watch also does the job wonderfully. Watches are required as backups to the ship's clocks, but nothing more elaborate than a sweep hand is needed.

(Of course, he's flying an airliner with more compute power and instruments than I'll ever have. My last Archer had the 'classic six' plus GPS and a stick-on stopwatch.)

Or, as Philip Greenspun puts it:

Q: What do you get when you cross an ape with a pilot? A: An ape with a big watch.

He goes on to advocate simple and readable, which I agree with. Taken to an extreme, you can get watches from Bell & Ross which are styled to look like flight instruments:


Nice. A pity they cost thousands of dollars, though. And don't have GMT. Or timers. Or alarms. Just the looks, ma'am.

I also flew with a Timex for a while:


(This one) You can also get different WW2 plane logos instead of the B17 - see this page of listings.

This is actually an OEM Timex Expedition, for $65. It's readable as heck, has a backlight for both analog and digital, and can keep track of two timezones. (E.g., GMT). The curve of the digital impairs legibility a bit, but it's pretty damn good.

These days, the only need for a complicated watch is if you lose instruments, have an ancient plane (e.g. Piper Cub) or demand to Look Like a Pilot. Once again, watches are jewelry. Pick one that's readable, functional and cheap. If you're flying, you need the money for airtime anyway.

  • Aviation, Watches, Essays