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Published Apr. 27, 2021

Pilots have been relying on purpose-built aviation watches almost since the dawn of flight. The famed aviators of the U.S. Army’s Eighth Air Force and their nemesis, the German Luftwaffe, relied on flight watches to hit their enemies at the time and place that hurt most, and the American aviators of Guadalcanal’s famed Cactus Air Force cleared the South Pacific skies of Japanese Zeros sporting classic timepieces of their own. While the glory days of prop-driven dogfights have passed, aviation relies heavily on proper timing to succeed in every mission, whether that be dropping payloads or picking up passengers. While HUDs and electronic instrument panels have decreased the pilot’s overall burden, an aviation watch still earns its keep in the cockpit and on the ground. 

Whether you fly a Cessna 172, a Black Hawk, or a C-17, carry on the tradition of airborne excellence with a quality aviation watch.

Need a tried-and-true watch trusted by fighter pilots? Grab a Casio G-Shock Gravitymaster GA1000-1A. According to The Aviationist, the G-Shock series may be the second most popular watch in the fighter pilot community, and this aviation watch combines the best of analog and digital watches. This aviator’s timepiece employs a battery-powered quartz movement housed inside a lightweight 47-millimeter case and secured with a rubber G-Shock band. This black Gravitymaster easily resists shock, water (down to 200 meters), and magnetic interference (ISO 764), making it an ideal choice for any pilot, navigator, or other airborne individual. The scratch-resistant mineral crystal protects the black face with its bold, white hands and markings, and the bright LED backlight ensures easy reading of the analog display in blackout conditions. This watch’s 24-hour chronograph (stopwatch) offers precision of 1/100th of a second, while the digital compass, barometer, and thermometer provide excellent situational awareness. The GA1000-1A includes four alarms and a pre-loaded auto calendar with day/date information until 2099. It also boasts a world time function which automatically changes to local time in 31 time zones centered in one of 48 international cities while also display Zulu time and a Daylight Saving Time on/off capability. How’s that for combat readiness?

Unlike most aviation watches, the Casio Edifice EF527D-1AV gives buyers a quality aviation watch with traditional looks and solid performance all on a budget-friendly price tag. This analog Japanese quartz watch comes with a 45.5-millimeter stainless steel case with a matching link bracelet and foldover clasp. The quartz movement runs on a battery with a two-year life, and the entire timepiece is rated for submersion in water down to 100 meters. The relatively small black dial incorporates luminous white markings and hands with red accents and a red second hand to increase visibility. The date window and scratch-resistant mineral crystal are par for the course, and the chronograph is rated for a precision of 1/20 of a second. The slide rule bezel includes two parts: a stationary external bezel and a rotating internal bezel controlled by a dedicated crown at the eight o’clock position. Both of the watch’s crowns are fluted for improved grip and aesthetics and can be screwed down for maximum security against accidental time changes.

Airmen, Marines, and all others, step aside for the U.S. Navy: the Citizen Promaster Skyhawk A-T JY8078-01L literally bleeds the colors of the world’s greatest navy and its premier flight demonstration team, the Blue Angels. This analog-digital hybrid aviation watch runs off the power of light, thanks to Citizen’s Eco-Drive technology and the Japanese quartz movement. The 45.4-millimeter stainless steel case and contrast-stitched blue leather band certainly imply naval air power, but the Blue Angels insignia on the case’s underside confirms the theme. Protected by a top-of-the-line anti-reflective sapphire crystal, the navy blue dial boasts luminous white hands and markings, and the yellow second hand and accents further impress observers. This Skyhawk A/T is radio synchronized to an atomic clock system with stations in 43 international cities for automatic time adjustments, a dual time zone, and a separate UTC (Zulu) display, and both the analog and digital displays are backlit for easy reading in low light. The 24-hour chronograph offers precision down to 1/100 of a second, and the date window relies on a perpetual calendar for perfect time management. This watch includes a 200-meter water resistance rating, a power reserve indicator, a rotating slide rule bezel, and a checkered crown with dual pushers. It also comes backed by Citizen’s five-year limited warranty for extra peace of mind.

According to The Aviationist, only Garmin watches outnumber G-Shocks at Miramar, and it’s a good bet the watch in question is the Garmin MARQ Aviator.This lithium-powered smartwatch boasts a titanium case and link bracelet, a titanium and ceramic bezel, and a 1.2-inch, sunlight-visible display with protective domed sapphire crystal. This unit includes time and date displays, water resistance down to 100 meters, GPS time sync, automatic Daylight Savings adjustments, a chronograph, and sunrise/sunset times. And that’s just for starters: this unit has a maximum runtime of 12 days between charges and includes 32 gigabytes of memory, allowing it to handle a wide variety of health and exercise, tactical, and other smartwatch functions. The watch’s aviation-specific features really stand out, and include direct-to navigation keys, a moving map, an HSI course needle, weather reports (including NEXRAD reports), and more. When paired with the Garmin Pilot, it can wirelessly upload flight plans and flight logging for seamless transitions from the ground to the air and back again. Features such as a heart rate monitor, a pulse oximeter, Multi-GNSS (GPS, GLONASS, and Galileo), and many more put this watch over the top. Those interested in a lighter and cheaper variant will enjoy the Garmin MARQ Aviator Performance Edition with its silicone band and matching capabilities.

Traditionalists will be thrilled with the Seiko Flightmaster SNA411. This analog timepiece runs off a battery-power Japanese quartz movement and resides within a stainless steel case paired with a fluted crown, dual pushers, and a stainless link bracelet with a foldover clasp. The black dial includes luminous, high-contrast white markings and an eye-catching yellow second hand. With a 42-millimeter case, this watch fits all but the largest wrists, making it tame enough to use in a variety of settings without compromising on style and tradition. At 6.35 ounces, this watch has some heft, but with its 200-meter water resistance rating and screw down crown, one might start to wonder if the Flightmaster had retirement plans as a dive watch. While it lacks a proper unidirectional bezel for safe underwater exploration, the rotating bezel hosts a pilot’s slide rule and combines with the included split time chronograph to allow for precise in-air measurements. As expected, this watch includes a date complication and a Seiko’s proprietary scratch-resistant Hardlex crystal.

Even with its capable performance, the Seiko SNN241 is like no other watch on this list. This analog watch runs on a battery-powered Japanese quartz movement and features a modern tape on the classic Flieger Type A watch layout. The stainless steel case pairs nicely with the contrast-stitched brown leather band and stainless steel closure, while the dark brown 42.6-millimeter dial compliments the overall aesthetic with luminous white markings and hands, creating a simple yet bold appearance. The 60-minute chronograph relies on two subdials with relatively subtle markings that add character and a distinct look to the watch’s face, and the date window is located at the unconventional six o’clock position for a truly unique styling. At 2.88 ounces, this watch is incredibly lightweight, yet its scratch-resistant Hardlex crystal and 100-meter water resistance rating ensures its toughness and durability. Add in the dual pushers and lightly fluted crown, and you can see why we think this is the best looking timepiece on the list.

Related: 7 men’s watches to kickstart any collection

Why should you trust us

With a professional bush pilot for an uncle and as a decades-long neighbor to the no less than three U.S. Air Force bases, I naturally have developed into a lifelong aviation enthusiast. I have an incurable case of curiosity regarding all things mechanical, and watches are no exception. Combine the two, and I’ll use my own experiences and in-depth researching abilities to share with you anything I can about aviation watches. This may come as a shocker, but you can see here, reviewing watches is nothing new to me.

Mechanical

Since the dawn of watchmaking, timepieces have been powerful by internal gears and springs. Over time, these hand-wound mechanical “movements” gave rise to the chronograph, and in the late 1960s, the “automatic” chronograph was born, combining aviation-grade precision with hands-free winding. Most modern aviation watches with mechanical movements rely on automatic movements for ease of maintenance. Due to the magnetic fields and electronic circuitry inherent to aircraft cockpits, a mechanical aviation watch must be resistant to magnetic interference in order to maintain aerial standards of accuracy and precision. Sadly, such watches are quite expensive and can be hard to find.

Quartz

Quartz movements are the second generation of watch power. These movements are inherently more accurate timekeepers than mechanical movements, making them more trustworthy to aviators than their traditional counterparts. Quartz movements rely on either a battery or solar energy to generate power and are tougher than mechanical movements. Thanks to electric power, quartz aviation watches often include extra features, such as multiple time zone options and backlights. Best of all, quartz watches are less expensive and much easier to maintain than equivalent mechanical watches due to their simpler construction.

Smartwatch

The smartwatch is the third generation of timekeeping technology, and the aviation smartwatch matches the needs of aviators with its own unique combination of pilot-specific capability and convenience. This type includes all of the health, timekeeping, and other features of a quality smartwatch, making it just as helpful on the ground as in the air. Features like GPS integration, pulse oximetry, and smartphone connectivity may not be exclusively beneficial to aviators, but flight-specific weather reports, dual time zone displays, and moving maps can serve pilots much better than most people stuck on the ground.

Flieger

Unlike other aviation watches which are categorized based by movement, the Flieger watch stands out with its unique face. Mimicking the German Luftwaffe’s original B-Uhr watch of World War II, today’s Flieger features a large, black face with bold white hour markings and a triangle at the twelve o’clock position for quick, easy reading. Type A Fliegers use ticks for minute markings, while Type B variants use numerals every five minutes along the face’s outside edge, pushing hour markings inward. Issued only for missions, original Flieger watches were mechanical devices, but modern Fliegers can be either mechanical or quartz watches.

Features to look for in an aviation watch

Visibility and layout

In the air, situations can change dramatically in a split second, requiring your full attention on the sea, land, and sky around you. Taking ten seconds to read your watch is simply unacceptable, which is why aviation watches tend to be large, well-illuminated, and easy to read. While they may have a number of complications (extra features), the watch’s face or LCD display should include a bold layout and with plenty of contrast.

Accuracy and precision

Life in the air is measured in seconds, so an aviation watch can determine whether or not you arrive exactly at your destination or overshoot it by miles. When your instruments go out, a slow, inaccurate, or imprecise watch can create almost as many headaches by throwing off your timing and navigation. Quartz movements will outperform mechanical watches, but watches synced to ground-based atomic clocks perform best at keeping pilots on time and on target.

Durability

Cockpits boast their fair share of hazards, so a quality aviation watch must be able to resist impacts and shock, vibrations, magnetic inference, and scratches to maintain the consistency and performance aviators demand. Pilot’s watches rely on an anti-magnetic case to protect their delicate internals. While affordable mineral watch crystals can take a significant beating, they won’t keep up with anti-reflective sapphire crystals that see little difference between a pillow and a sharp corner.

Chronograph / stopwatch

Almost since the beginning, pilots have relied on chronographs (stopwatches) to achieve maximum precision while navigating intercontinental flight paths, intricate race courses, or precise bombing runs. With the exception of vintage designs, such as the Flieger, all true aviation watches will include a chronograph, and the best ones will feature a flyback chronograph which allows the wearer to reset and restart the chronograph with a single press of the button instead of the traditional three.

Other complications

While not part of the original aviation watch design, modern flight watches include a handful of helpful features and complications, functions that “complicate” a mechanical movement. Pilots regularly travelling across different time zones will appreciate a secondary watch which keeps them “grounded” by staying permanently aligned with Zulu time (“GMT” or “UTC” to civilians). The slide rule bezel can also be extremely beneficial, allowing aviators to calculate and convert critical data on the fly.

The advantages of owning a aviation watch

Owning an aviation watch comes with its own set of advantages and benefits. While many watches keep the time and do little more, a pilot’s watch can accomplish a number of tasks that only amateur aviators and flying professionals regularly require. Sure, monitoring two time zones simultaneously is cool, but few outside of the world of fixed wings and rotors will find this complication particularly useful. At the same time, cool points can go a long way. Aviator watches possess a large physical presence, and when combined with their busy, highly visible designs, they have the subtlety of Santa Claus in Afghanistan. These attention grabbers are also packed with intrigue, thanks to those who have worn them. Whether you’re a fan of triple ace Robin Olds or Top Gun’s Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, there’s nothing quite like wearing a daily reminder of the legends of American air power.

Pricing ranges for aviation watches

If we’re being perfectly honest with each other, then let’s face the fact the aviation watches aren’t cheap. They are tools designed to do a tough job and to handle rough environments. That said, you can find some good quality pilot watches for less than $250. These watches are simple with features and design aesthetics, throwbacks to the decades following the Vietnam War when quartz watches were coming into their own. These timepieces usually include chronographs, slide rules, and luminous hands and markings, classic flight watch features.

Looking for something more advanced? Quartz watches with extras such as secondary GMT watches and synced timekeeping easily run in the $250 to $500 range, whereas mechanical watches at this price point usually have capabilities more in line with lower cost quartz specimens. For the best of the best, such as  smartwatches, decked-out mechanical offerings, and extremely high-end quartz timepieces, expect to drop over $500, maybe even a grand or two.

How we chose our top picks

When reviewing new gear, we much prefer to go the hands-on route, but sometimes, a lack of resources may thwart our attempts to get our mitts on some cool gear. When that happens, we listen to those who have firsthand experience. We comb through reviews on Amazon, enthusiast blogs, professional publications, and more to bring you the best, most comprehensive information we can. We sift through it all, keeping the gold and tossing the rest. For this review on aviation watches, we especially appreciated the information provided by The Aviationist, G-Central, Gear Patrol, these two pieces from Automatic Watches for Men, and these two from Monochrome.

How we chose our top picks

When reviewing new gear, we much prefer to go the hands-on route, but sometimes, a lack of resources may thwart our attempts to get our mitts on some cool gear. When that happens, we listen to those who have firsthand experience. We comb through reviews on Amazon, enthusiast blogs, professional publications, and more to bring you the best, most comprehensive information we can. We sift through it all, keeping the gold and tossing the rest.
For this review on aviation watches, we especially appreciated the information provided by The Aviationist, G-Central, Gear Patrol, these twopieces from Automatic Watches for Men, and thesetwo from Monochrome.

Related: Be safe and suave with these 5 dive watches

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