In this the second part of our aviator’s watch history series, we examine some of the most significant and iconic watches worn by those who conquered the sky – and even space.
The jet age began where WWII ended in 1945. Although the Luftwaffe had a fully operational jet fighter from Messerschmitt, the Me 262, by 1944 Germany lacked the resources to scale up production of this otherwise superior plane. So the Me 262 never became the game changer it could have been.
Defeated Germany began to rebuild, the Soviet Union joined the nuclear weapons club and another less bloody but potentially far more dangerous war broke out. The Cold War. Germany was divided four ways and became a hotbed of potential conflict, ultimately leading to the creation of West Germany and East Germany. This era of fighting in the shadows, as well as the race to dominate space, lead to a virtual explosion in the demand for suitable timepieces.
Many of the greatest Cold War watches were manufactured for military purposes, but other ground breaking timepieces made primarily for civil aviation came to be. We must also not forget the significant part wristwatches played in the space race, however we will come to this in just a few short paragraphs… There are countless watches we could look at here, but something has to give. So let’s start with a story that not many people know yet it is one that is totally relevant and compelling.
Lemania… you may never have heard of this now defunct Swiss watch company. From the late 1940s and up to the 1970s, Lemania was the exclusive supplier of military chronographs to the UK Ministry of Defence, also known as the MoD. Fleet Air Arm pilots and Royal Air Force pilots alike relied on the various Lemania chronographs being issued during that period. The watch in use during the early years was completely basic with a simple pusher to eliminate mistakes. If there was only one button to push, less could go wrong. At the very end of Lemania’s stint as the exclusive timepiece supplier to British military pilots, the Royal Navy Ref. 818 was introduced. Having been in production for just two years, this watch is incredibly difficult to find in good, original condition.
Based on the formidable Lemania Caliber 1872 movement, the 818 was one of the most interesting chronographs ever crafted for military purposes. Unlike previous Lemania chronographs, the 818 had two pushers; one for start/stop and one for reset. The watch case was asymmetrical which meant that the pushers were partly shielded. The crown was oversized to allow for seamless winding. All focus was on legibility and ease of use and, although this watch marked the end of the exclusive collaboration, this was truly Lemania’s finest hour.
As you would expect, the ever-present Swiss brand did play a role in the history of aviation watches, however not quite in the way that Rolex would have wanted. There is a tale of success and a tale of failure, the latter of which is mostly forgotten because ultimately it was turned into a formidable success. In the 1950s when non-stop transatlantic flights first became available, aviators had to deal with the challenge that travelling through multiple time zones represented.
The absolute leaders in the field were Pan American Airways, an airline that completely pioneered the long haul flights market. This is the time where pilots were treated like gods and no job could be more prestigious than being an air hostess. Indeed, any job that related to aviation was perhaps the ultimate dream of the post-war generation.
The need to keep track of the correct time across different time zones lead to a collaboration between Pan Am and Rolex. This partnership gave birth to the iconic Rolex GMT-Master. In addition to hours, minutes and seconds, a GMT-Master has a second hour hand which takes 24 hours to complete a lap. By also adding a rotating bezel with 24-hour markers, you have all the ingredients to keep track of time at home, at your destination and at your present location.
The Rolex GMT-Master was originally issued with a black dial and a two-colour rotating bezel in blue and red, earning the watch its ‘Pepsi’ nickname. Original Pan Am issued GMT-Master watches are extremely hard to find and those available to buy command high 5-figure prices. The GMT-Master is an essential Rolex watch, iconic and still in production to this day. So, we have heard the success but what about failure…
A less known story is that about the Rolex Daytona chronograph. The real name of this legendary watch holds a clue about this tumultuous tale. The watch was originally named the Rolex Cosmograph Oyster and was created in a bid to be selected for NASA’s Apollo space programme. Unfortunately for Rolex, the watch did not pass the rigorous tests and was therefore dismissed. Instead, the Cosmograph ended up as the darling of racing drivers, a fact that is celebrated still to this day in its Daytona nickname. So really, what else is there to say?
No watch brand is more associated with space travel than Omega. Famously being the creators of the first and only watch on the moon, Omega put the Speedmaster watch forward for consideration. The Speedmaster made the cut and came out on top in a NASA shootout that took place in 1964-65. NASA had created a test designed to emulate the extreme environment they expected to find in space.
Other brands like Breitling, Rolex and Longines also submitted watches for consideration but only the Speedmaster was accurate to within 5 seconds per day after having been taken to hell and back in a test that looked like this: • High temperature: 48 hours at 71 °C followed by 30 minutes at 93 °C • Low temperature: Four hours at −18 °C • Temperature cycling in near-vacuum: Fifteen cycles of heating to 71 °C for 45 minutes, followed by cooling to -18 °C for 45 minutes at 10−6 atm • Humidity: 250 hours at temperatures between 20 °C and 71 °C at relative humidity of 95% • Oxygen environment: 100% oxygen at 0.35 atm and 71 °C for 48 hours • Shock: Six 11 ms 40g shocks from different directions • Linear acceleration: from 1 to 7.25 g within 333 seconds • Low pressure: 90 minutes at 10−6 atm at 71 °C, followed by 30 minutes at 93 °C • High pressure: 1.6 atm for one hour • Vibration: three cycles of 30 minutes vibration varying from 5 to 2000 Hz with minimum 8.8 g impulse • Acoustic noise: 30 minutes at 130 dB from 40 to 10,000 Hz.
The Speedmaster which survived these atrocities had a manual wound movement and is still available today, albeit with a slightly large case diameter. The successful participation in the Apollo programme cemented Omega’s position as a true expert in the field of tool watches.
Breitling is in many ways the most dominant brand when it comes to modern era aviation watches. We could have focused on several of their models but the Navitimer is the best known, and it is also the watch from the Breitling family with perhaps the highest pedigree and longevity. It was however not the course that Willy Breitling, the grandson of the founder Léon Breitling, had planned for the family business. In 1934, when he filed a patent for a chronograph watch with two pushers - one for start/stop and one for reset, he wanted to be more than just another watch company making watches for aviation. His vision was to merge a precision chronograph with a slide rule and create the perfect tool for engineers and scientists, not for aviators. So stubborn was Willy that he refused to make watches for aviation like everyone else did in 1940-45.
He eventually had to give in to pressure from the aviation market and, in 1952, Breitling launched the Navitimer, which was essentially a reworked Breitling Chronomat (Mat for mathematician). The slide rule was converted for aviation purposes and the Navitimer became a massive success within the booming aviation industry. Operating a slide rule is almost a science in its own right and well outside the boundaries of this article, but it truly is a fascinating thought that before the computer and the calculator, the slide rule was king. The Navitimer enjoyed perhaps its finest moment in 1961 when Scott Carpenter, one of the original astronauts in the Mercury space program, asked Breitling to incorporate a 24-hour dial instead of the normal 12-hour dial. This was relevant because of the lack of day and night during space travel. Breitling delivered, and made the 24-hour Navitimer, which Carpenter wore on his 1962 space flight.
To this day the Navitimer is one of Breitling’s most important watches and, apart from being a great looking timepiece, it is also the most functional of all chronographs from the pre-digital era.
Enoksen and watches for aviation
The Enoksen Fly range is an important part of our Five Watches philosophy. Our current models, the Fly E03/A, B, D, E, and F are all tributes to the early days of military watches in aviation. When we introduced the Fly E03/D Chronograph, we decided to take things a step further. We have a soft spot for the Lemania 818 described above. We therefore performed the following experiment: We tried to imagine how we would approach constructing the 818 with today’s technology and requirements. We began with the watch case. With a diameter of 38mm, the 818 was a relatively big watch back in its time.
Today, we felt that 43mm would be more appropriate for a watch where legibility is absolutely essential. We imagined that a pilot would want to wear his watch everywhere, including when taking a swim or going for a dive, so we specified a screw-down crown and a different pusher design. The original pushers were relatively thin and mushroom shaped. We wanted something more robust. These changes and improvements meant that water resistance could be increased from 30m to 100m.
Then we considered the crystal. Although hardened mineral glass or Perspex has its charm, only a sapphire crystal would do. The next consideration was the lug pins. On the 818 the pins are fixed. This is great if you are happy to wear the watch on a one-piece nylon strap. We, however, wanted more flexibility and specified heavy duty spring pins to give the customer more options. Bracelet, leather band, nylon, rubber, NATO… everything is possible with this set up.
Finally, we had to address the movement. Whilst the 818 was equipped with the iconic Lemania Caliber 1872, we wanted to utilise a more affordable option. A comparable movement would take the price of the watch well out of the range we sell our watches in. Also, if our watch were to be considered by institutions liked the MoD, the price had to be reasonable. So with that in mind, we went with the exciting VK64 movement from Seiko.
Being a so-called hybrid movement, the VK64 combines the best of both worlds. A pinpoint accurate quartz element to provide hours & minutes and an old school mechanical stopwatch with the correct manual ticking and the highly desirable fly-back reset function. The finishing touches lay in deciding our dial colour scheme. Instead of using black, as featured on the 818, we went with our signature grey which is used on a number of our other watches. This signature grey combined with white and light orange markers, numbers and hands meant this experiment was now complete.
After all was said and done, all that remained was for us to push the button and put our new watch into production. We hope you will like it as much as we do.