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Published Apr. 27, 2021

Sometimes a watch is more than just a watch, and the best aviation watches function not only as timekeeping devices but also as navigation aids. An aviation watch was once an essential piece of an aviator’s kit during the golden age of flying, where a pilot, copilot, or navigator would have to manually calculate things like fuel expenditure, rate of climb, and conversion of statute miles to nautical miles. Other aviation watches of the era were simple “Flieger” watches, which have relatively large and simple dials and were intended for military aviators to keep accurate mission time and get munitions on target on time. 

The world of aviation watches is vast and full of many similar-looking brands, and today’s list aims to bring you the best no matter your needs or budget. Whether you want a new watch to match some recently acquired wings, or you love aviation history and want to own something to pay homage to manned flight, we’ve got you covered with the best aviation watches worth owning.

The Hamilton Khaki Pilot Day-Date comes with serious cinematic pedigree, recently featured on the wrist of Matthew McConaughey in the 2014 film “Interstellar.” But unlike many famous movie watches, the Hamilton Khaki Pilot is surprisingly still affordable, especially when considering its solid construction and, if you’ll excuse the pun, stellar design. This is a Swiss-made automatic Type B Flieger watch with a large day-date complication, an extra feature that adds the pizzazz needed to elevate this tool watch that looks as at home in a flight suit as it does in dress blues.

As a Type B Flieger, the Hamilton Khaki Pilot’s larger numbers are the minutes while there’s an inner track of smaller numbers that shows the hours, owing to the fact that, in bygone years, combat pilots needed to know the minute of the hour more than they needed to know the hour. However, this model embraces its modern role as a stylish accessory by incorporating a large day-date complication that is reminiscent of watches like the famous Rolex “President” while decluttering the design by putting the day at the top and the date at the bottom. This decision is accentuated by the beautiful design that’s perfectly proportioned and beautifully finished, with a 316L stainless steel case and bracelet, sapphire crystal, and an ETA 2834-2 movement that’s been modified to run for 80 hours without rewinding. Topped off with a nearly-scratch proof sapphire crystal, this watch works as hard as it plays.

The dial on the Khaki Pilot is beautiful, featuring a mild sunburst effect that is different from the usual flat black. Or it would be beautiful, if you could see it, since there’s no anti-reflective coating on the crystal covering the dial. The luminescence on the Khaki Pilot is good, but not great, and only covers the hour and minute hands, and then the minute track on the dial. The minute track is printed on in luminescent paint, meaning that it’ll fade before the hands do. Finally, the bracelet is a good-looking bracelet, but it uses a pin-and-collar system to connect the links, meaning that it’s that much more finicky to adjust relative to the more modern screw links that are starting to show up on Chinese watches that go for half the price.

The Hamilton Khaki Pilot is a fantastically stylish, accurate, and durable watch that has real cinematic pedigree. For a reasonable price, you can own a watch that pays homage to the history of aviation, and one of the better movies to come out in recent years about space travel.

Product Specs
  • Country of manufacture: Switzerland
  • Movement: Hamilton H40, modified ETA 2834-2 automatic movement
  • Crystal: Sapphire
  • Dimensions: 42.4mm wide x 12mm thick x 48mm long
  • Accuracy: +/- 20 Seconds per day
PROS

Simple, beautiful, and easy-to-understand layout

Cinematic pedigree from “Interstellar”

Massive mechanical power reserve

CONS

No anti-reflective coating on the crystal

Unimpressive bracelet

Less than optimal lume

In today’s market, telling someone that you can find them a reliable, accurate, name-brand watch with a solid-link steel bracelet for less than $250 can often sound like a joke. But the Citizen Nighthawk is all that and a true aviator’s watch to boot, with an internal slide rule bezel to allow you to calculate fuel consumption, rate of climb, and other important flight statistics with nothing but a wristwatch. Additionally, you can track two different time zones, allowing you to set one for your starting time and another for your destination time and making this piece a great travel companion.

The biggest advantage of the Nighthawk is its use of Citizen’s Eco-Drive technology. It’s a solar-powered quartz movement that can even charge from artificial light, meaning that theoretically, you’ve got limitless power until the power cell goes bad, which can take an entire decade. The slide rule function is excellent if you learn how to use one, and you’ll have a tool that can allow you to convert metric to imperial units on your wrist at all times. This watch can also go wherever you go, air, land, or sea, given that it’s rated to 200m of water resistance, which makes it perfect for overshooting your carrier deck and ditching in the South China Sea. All of these features come in a stainless steel case with a handsome stainless steel three-link solid bracelet with tactically polished portions for less than $250, making this an unbeatable value for its number of features.

The biggest shortcoming of the Nighthawk is that most people will never use the slide rule bezel or dual-time display, and therefore the dial can seem cluttered and difficult to read. After all, It’s still a specialized tool watch. Another issue is that the crystal on this one is mineral glass rather than sapphire, which is understandable at the price point, but still something to be aware of. The luminescence on this watch is good, not great, which is fine for a pilot watch, but making this watch more readable in a dark cockpit would fit better with the classic aesthetic. The pin-and collar bracelet is acceptable, but not optimal, as while sizing the bracelet I destroyed one of the pins when trying to use needle-nose pliers to remove it. The final issue is mostly a matter of impressing watch snobs, since there are many people who will pooh-pooh a watch for having an electronic quartz movement rather than a mechanical one.

The Citizen Nighthawk is a cool watch that nearly anyone can afford, and comes with a strong sense of purpose with regard to the utility of the watch as a professional tool. If you learn to use the dial and bezel, this is a watch that punches well above its weight in terms of features.

Product Specs
  • Country of manufacture: Japan
  • Movement: Citizen B877 Eco-Drive
  • Crystal: Mineral
  • Dimensions: 42mm wide x 12mm thick x 46mm long
  • Accuracy: +/- 15 seconds per month
PROS

Practically limitless power reserve

As much a tool watch as a stylish aviation accessory

Excellent features-to-price ratio

CONS

Mineral crystal

Cluttered dial

Quartz has a lower cool factor, violating rule #1 of military aviation

Best for a Retirement Gift

When you’ve done enough time in the U.S. military to pick up squadron command, a nearly $9,000 watch doesn’t sound like a bad reward to oneself, or as much of a significant ding to your paycheck as it would be to some. That’s part of why I’ve often seen the Breitling Navitimer gracing the wrists of Air Force colonels, generals, and chief master sergeants, as well as naval aviators of similar grade. The Breitling Navitimer is the original by which all slide rule bezel aviator watches are measured, with price to match. But with a high price tag comes unbelievable finishing, chronometer accuracy, and unbelievable brand cachet and heritage — all in Air Force colors.

The Breitling Navitimer Chronograph is a watch from a different time, when you needed a tool to calculate all relevant flight data mechanically strapped to your wrist. The beautifully hand-finished watch not only includes a manually-actuated slide rule bezel, but also a fully-functional chronograph that tracks hours, minutes, and seconds as a nod to a time when pilots flying by instrument had to plot waypoints on a map, estimate time of flight based off airspeed, and then have a stopwatch running to let them know when to turn. This utility comes in a package that is beautiful enough to function as a dress watch owing to the mirror-polished case and angled beads of rice bracelet.

I have to stretch to find something wrong with the Breitling Navitimer Chronograph. This is not a small watch physically or in terms of cost, both in keeping with Breitling’s traditions of large, ornate watches that come at a premium. For smaller-wristed wearers, 43mm may be a lot to work with, and they will likely experience some overhang from their wrist or at the very least have a watch that resembles a wrist-mounted wall clock at a glance. This is in keeping with classic functionality for pilots, but some might not prefer it for everyday wear. Another issue that many people will find is the cost of maintaining a watch of this grade, with even simple servicing being hundreds of dollars. Finally, like every slide rule aviator’s watch, the dial is very cluttered, and some people may find that hard to read.

Frankly, this list would not be complete without the Breitling Navitimer, which is to aviators what the Rolex Submariner is to divers. This is a beautiful heirloom watch and is an excellent choice for an end-of career memento for any aviator or aviation enthusiast.

Product Specs
  • Country of manufacture: Switzerland
  • Movement: Breitling Caliber 01 Chronometer movement
  • Crystal: Sapphire
  • Dimensions: 43mm wide, 14.2mm thick, 49.1mm long
  • Accuracy: -4/+6 seconds per day
PROS

Gorgeous Swiss-made craftsmanship

Arguably the Gold Standard for aviation watches

Beautiful enough to be a dress watch while remaining functional

CONS

Cluttered dial

High price

Expensive to maintain

The Seiko Flightmaster Alarm Chronograph isn’t just a watch: It’s a stopwatch, slide rule for calculating times of flight and fuel consumption, solar compass for navigation, and alarm. For the man or woman who does it all, this is the watch that does it all. Best of all, it’s a watch that you can take wherever you go as it’s as water-resistant as some watches advertised exclusively for diving purposes. For many people, this quartz Seiko is the ultimate aviation watch, fully-featured, but affordable enough for most professional users as long as they’re willing to put up with a certain level of “Seiko Jank” and a lot of clutter.

The Flightmaster lives up to its name by addressing nearly every capability that a traditional aviation watch would need, all for an economical price. Everything that every other watch on this list can do, the Flightmaster can do as well, and in a relatively wearable package thanks to the 46mm lug-to-lug length. As a Seiko, the Flightmaster has great aftermarket support if you want different crystals, bracelets, or other upgrades, which are easy enough to find. Finally, the Flightmaster is stylish enough to wear anywhere and with anything, making it a watch that you’ll never need to take off.

Unfortunately, a watch that can do it all means that it’s a very complex and cluttered watch, and the dial looks like a mess of numbers to the untrained eye. One of the important things about an aviation watch is that it needs to be easily readable at a glance, and this one is most certainly not. Another issue is that it’s a Seiko, and lower-end Seiko bracelets are not known for being very good. Indeed, this bracelet is an unusual 21mm wide, which means you have to find an aftermarket bracelet specifically made for this watch. Finally, the Flightmaster has absolutely nothing to speak of in terms of luminescence, meaning that it’s a daytime-only watch.

The Seiko Flightmaster is a cult classic for a reason, and that’s the sheer amount of charm emanating from this Breitling Navitimer alternative. If you can learn how to use the functions, it’s remarkably capable. As long as you’re willing to put up with the quirks, you won’t regret this purchase.

Product Specs
  • Country of manufacture: Japan
  • Movement: Seiko 7T62
  • Crystal: Seiko Hardlex
  • Dimensions: 42mm wide, 13.1mm thick, 44mm long
  • Accuracy: +/- 15 seconds per month
PROS

Iconic design

Compact wearing size

Does everything you’ll ever need

CONS

Cluttered dial

Wonky design

No lume

The one thing every other watch on this list has in common is that they’re very complicated. From the relative simplicity of the Hamilton to the smorgasbord of numbers that is the Seiko Flightmaster, every watch seeks to “improve” on the classic Flieger design that began in the early days of aviation. The Laco 1925 Pilot classic returns to that form, with an uncluttered and easily readable dial that’s as uncomplicated as they come. Three hands, Arabic numerals, and a simple logo, the Laco is a simple Flieger for the modern pilot.

The Laco’s easy-to-read dial is the main feature here, and arguably the only feature, since this watch features no complications. It’s a simple German-made watch that features an automatic mechanical movement, a high contrast dial, and a sapphire crystal, all for a relatively affordable price. Additionally, the dimensions of this watch are historically accurate, given that original pilots’ watches were 42mm, 44mm, or even 45mm in a time where men’s watches were often 34mm. It’s as simple as they get when it comes to a Type-A Flieger watch, and Laco is a great entry into the classic German-made pilots watches.

I suppose this would be a good time to make a joke about bringing the Axis powers back, considering that the Laco is powered by a Japanese-made Miyota movement, installed in Germany. Most people won’t mind that “German-made” isn’t 100 percent accurate, but some people would prefer a Swiss-made ETA, Ronda, or Cellita in the watch. Another issue is that the luminescent indices are painted on, so they’re not going to last as long as applied indices. The watch also wears large, due to the 50mm lug-to-lug length. Finally, some people may feel a bit weird purchasing a pilot’s watch from a company that advertises that they got their start making watches for the Luftwaffe in the 1940s.

Product Specs
  • Country of manufacture: German with Japanese movement
  • Movement: Miyota 821A
  • Crystal: Sapphire
  • Dimensions: 42mm wide, 12.8mm thick, 50mm long
  • Accuracy: -20/+40 seconds per day
PROS

Simple, clean design

Easy-to-read

Reasonable price

CONS

“Made in Germany”

Wears large

Questionable brand cachet

Most Accurate

Let’s say you’ve got the rarest qualification badge in the entire U.S. military: the Astronaut Wings. Alternatively, let’s say you really love space, you watch ‘Apollo 13’ and ‘Interstellar’ every year, and you wish you could qualify for the astronaut program. Or let’s just say you want a watch that’s been to the moon, and is insanely accurate, but doesn’t cost as much as the Omega Speedmaster that most people associate with space travel. If any of these sound like you, Bulova’s incredibly precise aviation chronograph is the watch for you. Using a high frequency quartz movement, the Lunar Pilot looks every bit like a watch that’s 10 times the price, and is sure to complement any outfit, if you’ve got the wrist for it.

The Lunar Pilot is a quartz watch based on the prototype mechanical Bulova watch worn by astronaut Col. David Scott on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 15 mission in 1971. On that mission, his NASA-issue Omega Speedmaster lost the crystal that protected the dial, so he got NASA approval to wear his personal Bulova prototype that the company had given him. That’s some serious cool factor for a watch that costs less than $500, especially for space travel nerds. The watch’s 262 khz quartz vibration frequency means that this watch keeps the precise time needed for space travel with ease, losing plus or minus 10 seconds per year. The watch isn’t simply cool-looking and precise, it’s also very well-assembled, featuring a stainless steel case, retro-style pushers, and a tophat sapphire crystal to protect the dial from the issues that plagued the Omega that the original replaced.

The biggest issue with the Bulova Lunar Pilot is that it’s a classic aviation chronograph that was most famously worn on the outside of a space suit. Both of those factors mean that it’s a very large watch, at 45mm in diameter. This is not the watch for small-wristed people, and although it fits me fine, it’s definitely entering into dinner plate territory. Another issue with it is that the stock straps are stylish, but not comfortable, and my experience with the watch was one dominated by finding a suitably space-y strap to go on this watch while still remaining comfortable to wear all day. The luminescence is also very weak, and is really only visible if your eyes are adjusted to the dark, or if you just came out of the sunlight. Finally, the pushers aren’t the most responsive, and you can sometimes get false activations if you’re not careful, which is disappointing, especially when the pushers look really cool.

A true moonwatch for less than $500, the Bulova is the coup de grace for any space nerd on a budget, or anyone who wants one of the most accurate chronographs that money can buy. Provided you’ve got the large wrist to support the Jupiter-sized dial and case, it’ll grace your wrist proudly and be an excellent conversation piece.

Product Specs
  • Country of manufacture: Japan
  • Movement: Bulova Precisionist
  • Crystal: Sapphire
  • Dimensions: 45mm wide, 13.5mm thick, 52mm long
  • Accuracy: +/- 10 seconds per year
PROS

Incredible astronomical pedigree

Very precise

Beautifully finished

CONS

Extremely large

Stock straps aren’t great

Poor lume and controls

Why you should trust us

This article was the result of months of research based on my experience with watches that I’ve purchased, and that those who I trust have worn. These are all watches that are often the first names mentioned by watch enthusiasts when you talk about aviation watches, and that’s due to innovative designs, quality execution, and legendary capabilities. In addition, it’s worth noting that I loved the Citizen Nighthawk so much that I purchased a Blue Angels commemorative edition for my father, as a nod to his decades of service as a Marine aviator.

Types of aviation watches

Aviation watches fall into four major categories: type A Fliegers, type B Fliegers, chronographs, and navitimers. These all have rich histories within the fields of aviation, and many watches on this list straddle two different categories in their design language.

Type A Flieger

Type A Fliegers are simple three-hand pilots’ watches that feature a high-contrast dark dial with white arabic numerals and an outer minute track. They are essentially standard three-hand watches that prioritize readability above all else, and therefore have very simple dials.

Type B Flieger

Type B Fliegers feature large outer minute tracks and small inner hour tracks due to the fact that many pilots felt that knowing what minute of the hour was more important than knowing the hour of the day. Well-designed type B Fliegers will have the hour hand be just long enough to reach the inner hour track, and the minute hand long enough to reach the large minute track.

Chronograph

One of the most important tasks in the aviation days of yore was flying by instruments in low visibility or at night, in which a pilot would rely on his or her bearing, airspeed, and altitude, in conjunction with a map and a stopwatch to determine how far the aircraft had traveled. Because of this, chronograph watches were very popular, providing the wearer with a stopwatch on their wrist at all times. While not strictly an aviation watch, chronographs had real utility in the air.

Navitimer

Navitimers are technically a trademark of the Breitling corporation, referring to their “wrist-mounted instrument package” that they’ve been selling since the 1950s. However, this term has come to mean any watch that seeks to be a suite of aeronautical instruments on the wearer’s wrist, featuring things like compass bezels, slide rules, dual-time functions, and so forth. These are the most complex watches on this list, and are some of the most complex on the market.

Key features of aviation watches

Aviation watches rely on several distinct features to set them apart from the rest of the horological world, or improve on common features to make them airworthy. From specialized bezels to simple durability features, aviation watches are distinctive from nearly every other type of watch due to the needs of pilots.

Crystal

The crystal of the watch is the glass that covers the dial. Crystals can be made of acrylic plastic, mineral glass, or synthetic sapphire. Acrylic is the most impact-resistant and can be repaired by anyone with polywatch compound and time, but it scratches very easily. Mineral glass is somewhat more scratch-resistant than acrylic, but not as easy to buff out if it gets damaged, and is also more shatter-prone. Sapphire is nearly impervious to scratching, being impervious to everything except diamond, but is also more prone to cracks and chips from sharp impacts. In addition, sapphire benefits from anti-reflective coating to maintain visibility in direct sunlight.

Lume

Lume, or luminescence, is how the dial glows in the dark. Usually, luminescent paint on the dial or filled into raised index or numeral molds is the method by which a watch maintains visibility when going from light to dark, but some companies like Timex use powered luminescence and others like Marathon are known for their use of radioactive tritium vials to provide luminescence that lasts for years.

Slide rule bezel

Slide rules are one of those things that old-timers like to brag about being able to use, but they’re simple enough to use in a hurry if you learn how to use them. A slide rule bezel is graduated to allow the wearer to perform complex calculations on the fly, convert metric to imperial units, or calculate the rate of climb. 

Chronograph

A chronograph is a stopwatch, but for your wrist, plain and simple. Chronograph watches will, at their simplest, feature a second hand, usually the large seconds hand, and a minute sub-dial to track time elapsed. Complicated chronographs can track an entire day’s worth of time, useful for pilots traveling through the air for hours, and some watches that cost upwards of the price of your average large family dwelling even have mechanical triple split functions, such as the A Lange & Sohne Triple Split.

Aviation watch pricing

Budget

Many simple, affordable watches, especially Flieger-style watches, live in the $50 to $200 range. You don’t need to skimp on quality as long as you keep things simple, but be aware of shady brands in this price bracket that will sell you watches with a great ad campaign and an inspiring (and concocted) backstory, but which have very little in terms of quality.

Mid-range

Between $200 and $1000 is where you can get a lot of bang for your buck, and where you start to see the entry level to quality watches from name brands. However, this category is full of brands that will charge you extra money for a name, while offering a watch that’s outdone by something in a lower price bracket.

Premium

Above $1000 is the doorstep to luxury, going from premium Hamiltons and Seikos up to diamond-encrusted Breitlings and Rolexes and beyond. This price bracket has no limit and is probably best reserved for the experienced buyer who knows what they’re looking for in a watch just by looking at it.

How we chose our top picks

To research these watches, I first looked at the most popular picks from watch journalists and watch reviewers that had legitimate military heritage, then asked owners of these watches what they thought of theirs, handled several, and bought the two I liked best as gifts. Every watch on this list is either preferred by myself, or by someone I trust, and if I could afford a Breitling Navitimer, instead of just being able to fondle one in a jewelry store, I would own one.

FAQs on aviation watches

You’ve got questions, Task & Purpose has answers.

Q: What watches do real pilots wear?

A: Real pilots, if they wear watches, will often wear digital Garmin GPS watches while flying, offering systems redundancy and precise timekeeping. All watches on this list are more for the tradition-minded aviator.

Q: What is an aviation watch?

A: Aviation watches are designed to be easily readable at a glance when flying very quickly, hence why they prioritize high-contrast displays and, in times past, were larger than average.

Q: Why do pilots’ watches have a triangle?

A: Some Flieger-style watches will have a triangle, which is to allow a pilot to immediately know where 12 o’clock is at a glance, no matter the orientation of the watch. 

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