Cold hands on the stick, the pilot’s bones vibrating from incessant engine roar and the bleak, open sky appearing endless on the horizon. Such was the life of a pilot in the 1920’s.
We can only speculate about the watch worn by Charles Lindbergh as he set out in the Spirit of St. Louis after completing his Trans-Atlantic flight between New York and Paris May 21, 1927. We can guess — it was likely a Longines watch.
In 1927 Longines had been producing a pilot’s watch designed by navigational instructor Philip van Horn Weems, which had a revolving auxiliary dial allowing for navigation calculations.
Towards the end of 1930 Lindbergh conceived his own design of a pilot’s watch. Lindbergh drew precise diagrams showing its function and appearance and popped an envelope in the mail addressed to the Longines watch company in the village of Saint-Imier Switzerland.
After just five months Longines had taken Lindbergh’s drawings and brought to life a large, solid mass of steel, silver and porcelain (top image). The watch became known as the Lindbergh Hour Angle. The watch measured a massive 47.5 mm in stainless steel with a Sterling silver turning bezel, massive “onion style” winding crown and inner turning auxiliary dial.
Its dimensions did not dictate to fashion, but rather practicality, as pilots wore heavy gloves and needed to operate their watch flawlessly while flying a plane.
A wide and extra-long band was fitted on the Hour Angle watch, allowing the pilot to fasten the watch around his heavy overall sleeve. The revolving bezel permitted the calculation of the time equation necessary for navigation, while the inner turning dial allowed synchronization with the radio time signal all aviators relied upon.
The Roman numeral porcelain dial with blued steel hands provided easy readability in the dim cockpit. Further enhancing the practicality of this watch was a locking mechanism below the crown which had to be depressed in order to set the time, reducing the risk of error and possibly, loss of life.
The Lindbergh Hour Angle was offered to the world in August of 1931 and requested by the likes of Amelia Earheart and other record-seeking aviators of the era.
Admiral Richard E. Byrd, who had already made Longines famous by testing their timepieces over the North Pole in 1926, was among the first who ordered the watch. Many commercial airlines worldwide in the 1930’s utilized this watch as their prime navigational tool.
Of the 2,000 Lindbergh watches produced, it is estimated only 100 exist today, making this a highly coveted collectible.
With World War II on the horizon, Swiss watch manufacturers produced a flurry of pilot’s watches for both the Germans and the Allies. Among the most noted was the hulking 1940’s IWC Big Pilot B-Uhr, supplied to the German Luftwaffe, measuring a whopping 55mm, with striking black dial and no-nonsense design. This watch is still produced by IWC today in many variations, but still in its huge form.
There were literally dozens of black dial, glowing radium numeral pilot watches produced in the 30’s and 40’s, with names such as Rellum, Mimo, Glashutte and Hanhart, to name a few. The most basic of these watches, at least, featured a turning bezel with a triangular glowing marker used to record time.
In the early 1950’s the Type 20 and 21 flyback chronograph watches were chosen by the French Air Force and Navy as their primary pilot’s watch. The flyback function allowed the operator to reset the chronograph hand to 12:00 while the watch was timing. Furthermore, the French government requested that the watch have a 35-hour winding reserve and be accurate to within eight seconds per day.
The most famous of Type 20 watches was manufactured by Breguet. Its basic, yet elegant black dial with luminous hands and numerals still to this day represents the epitome of both function and beauty. Another prominent brand producing the Type 20-21 was Dodane, with watches that followed the same practical route as the Breguet. Dodane produced a black dial, easy-to-read chronograph with all the exacting specifications required by the French and was utilized into the 60’s by pilots.
Vietnam-era saw pilots choosing the Glycine Airman as their preferred watch. Introduced in 1953, the Airman featured a true 24-hour dial, whereby the hour hand took a full 24 hours to rotate around the face of the watch, indicating a.m. and p.m. time. The newly updated 1970’s Glycine Airman SST became the choice of many commercial jet pilots. It too offered a true 24-hour dial and became available with an automatic winding mechanism.
One of the most revered pilots watches was designed by Rolex for Pan-Am airlines in 1954. The Rolex GMT-Master featured a red and black turning bezel, which could be aligned with a newly invented “fourth” hand, which allowed pilots to view the time in two different parts of the world at one glance.
These watches were ideal, as pilots often flew back and forth between two different time zones and they did not need to reset the time on their watch. Pan-Am provided a GMT-Master to all its senior executives and pilots. The GMT-Master became one of Rolex’s best-selling watches to the general public as well.
Among the most notable watches used by pilots may be the Breitling Navitimer. Upon its introduction in 1952, Breitling advertised their watch as being a “time computer”. The rotating bezel turned an inner disk on the bezel edge, which allowed for various computations related to aviation formulae. No other pilot’s watch has endured and appeared in so many incarnations. Produced in steel, solid gold, gold filled and even blinged-out in diamonds (much to purists chagrin), the Navitimer has truly endured the test of time.
I find it comforting to see a modern day pilot wearing a Navitimer: it harkens back to a time when mechanical devices ruled the world, rather than the un-endearing glowing screen of a plastic, electronic throwaway device.
A wristwatch connects humans to their inimitable ability to design and dream. A watch provides a visual analogue passing of time, only visible with the tick-tock of a second hand grounding us to the reality that time is disappearing right before our eyes. Something we all need to me reminded of … from time-to-time.
Derek Dier is a vintage watch specialist, with over 25 years of experience. He is one of the first internet watch dealers. He has sold watches to the Royal Family, world dignitaries, noted musicians, actors and actresses, writers, artists, and Fortune 500 CEOs. He supplied vintage watches to the leads and characters of AMC’s Mad Men, Seasons 5 and 6.