Since the early days of wristwatches, aviation has been key. After all, out of anyone, pilots’ needed better timekeeping than anyone outside of a race track. That’s why over the years most militaries around the world have commissioned specific watches for their air forces, from the Fliegers of WW2 Germany to the Type 20s of the French Air Force.
Sure, cockpit instruments have come a long way since, but as the watch world seems determined to mine every archive out there, it’s no surprise to see classic pilot’s watches coming back in a big way. That doesn’t mean though that you need to spend in a big way to get one. In fact, there are plenty of solid options out there that offer superb value for money with an entry-level price tag.
Here then, in no particular order, are our seven favourite pilots watches for under £3,000.
Airain Type 20 Re-Edition
Breguet’s Type XX might be the most exclusive pilots’ watch out there, but it has its genesis in the same military order as this historically-authentic number from recently-revived heritage watch brand Airain. This is pure 1950s aviation style, with its bicompax layout and timeless, streamlined style, and lot more handsome than some of the more utilitarian pilots’ watches out there. But then, what do you expect from the French air force? The new watch is available in a limited edition with a chocolate brown dial, but for our money it’s all about the original black.
Case/dial: 39.5mm diameter, stainless steel | Movement: Calibre AM1, automatic, 28 jewels | Frequency: 28,800 vph (4 Hz) | Power reserve: 55h | Functions: Hours, minutes, small seconds, chronograph with 30-min counter | Strap: Suede leather with steel pin buckle | Price: £2,262, more details at Airian.
Longines Spirit Prestige Edition
We’re suckers for Longines’ entire Heritage collection, but what we have here is actually a more modern ode to the watchmaker’s surprisingly rich aviation heritage. It’s closer to pilot-inspired than a straight-up pilots’ watch, making it incredibly versatile, yet still with enough clear legibility and the signature oversized crown that most air-worthy watches need. The blue-dialled prestige edition is up against out 3K limit here, but it’s worth it. Backed by a silicon balance spring-equipped movement with 64-hour power reserve, you get a lot of watch for your money.
Case/dial: 40mm diameter, stainless steel | Movement: Calibre L888.4, hand wound, 21 jewels | Frequency: 25,200 vph (3.5 Hz) | Power reserve: 64h | Functions: Hours, minutes, seconds, date at 3 o’clock | Strap: Stainless steel bracelet | Price: £2,260, more details at Longines.
Hanhart 417 ES Reissue
Another archival watch returned to the light of day, the Hanhart 417 ES is a legendary model that served as the first pilots’ chronograph of the German armed forces. Everything here is just as it was on the historical model, from the coin edge bezel complete with red marker to the bi-compax layout, though with an updated (yet still hand-wound) Swiss movement and an upped 100m water resistance for practicality’s sake. It’s also incredibly good-looking. If there’s such a thing as the perfect café racer watch, this may well be it.
Case/dial: 42mm diameter, stainless steel | Movement: Calibre Sellita SW 510 M, hand wound, 23 jewels | Frequency: 28,800 vph (4 Hz) | Power reserve: 58h | Functions: Hours, minutes, seconds, small second, chronograph | Strap: Calfskin strap with Alcantara on the inside (black strap only), dark brown with rivets and an optional underlay or light brown with rivets and an optional underlay | Price: From €1,744.87 (approx. £1,580), more details at Hanhart.
Fortis Flieger F-43 Bicompax
Based on the early, chronograph versions of the famous German Flieger watches, Fortis has taken the often well-trodden Flieger chronograph formula and gone a step beyond. Horologically they’ve done so with a novel five-second indicator at five o’clock, used by pilots to sync up, and solid lume indexes for easier readability. Visually they’ve done so with a few flashes of bright, Berlac Fluor orange and a strikingly-sloped GMT bezel. Sure, the starting point was an early, archival design but the result is a very modern, military-slanted pilots’ watch.
Case/dial: 43mm diameter, stainless steel | Movement: Calibre Fortis UW-51, automatic, 27 jewels | Frequency: 28,800 vph (4 Hz) | Power reserve: 42h | Functions: Hours, minutes, seconds, 30-minute counter chronograph | Strap: Stainless steel bracelet | Price: €3,800 EUR, more details at Fortis.
Fratello X Oris Big Crown Bronze Pointer Date
Oris were always going to be on this list with one of their Big Crown pilots; it just so happens that their latest collaborative effort with Fratello Watches is one of the finest-looking yet, pairing the Big Crown Pointer Date’s stunning bronze case, complete with coinedge bezel, with a red dial as rich as old-school members’ club drapery. Backed by Oris’ superb value-for-money watchmaking and novel peripheral date complication, it’s almost more dress watch than cockpit instrument. The downside? It’s limited to 300 pieces.
Case/dial: 42mm diameter, stainless steel | Movement: Calibre ORIS 754, (Sellita SW 200-1 base), automatic, 26 jewels | Frequency: 28,800 vph (4 Hz) | Power reserve: 38h | Functions: Hours, minutes, seconds, central pointer date | Strap: Taupe leather with bronze pin buckle and a grey NATO strap with bronze hardware | Price: €1,950, limited to 300 pieces (250 pieces available at shop.fratello.com and 50 pieces available at Oris boutiques), more details at Fratello.
In our last print issue we got hands-on with the Morgan, the most grown-up of Farer’s three new, anti-magnetic pilots watches. The one we’d buy however is this. The Caylay’s midnight blue dial with oversized indexes is pretty much standard mil-spec fare, right down to the iron sights at 12 o’clock – except that it’s also a California dial, with Roman numerals on top, Arabic numerals below. It’s a relatively simple change but an inspired one. Throw in an oversized fluted crown and orange-lumed hands and you have what Farer do best: turning an archetypal timepiece into something far, far more fun.
Case/dial: 39mm diameter, stainless steel | Movement: Calibre Sellita SW200-1, automatic, 26 jewels | Frequency: 28,800 vph (4 Hz) | Power reserve: 38h | Functions: Hours, minutes, sweep seconds, date | Strap: Over-stitched American Horween leather strap with stainless steel buckle | Price: £775, more details at Farer.
Yema Flygraf Pilot M1
If less is more than Yema’s latest pilots’ watch – created in collaboration with Red Bull Air Race pilot Sammy Mason – is the most. The case has been streamlined to an almost industrial look with a striking, flat bezel. The dial’s three-dimensional lumed numbers are crystal clear to read, with a smaller inner ring for the less necessary pm numerals. The watch is powered by the in-house YEMA MBP1000 automatic movement, an incredible feat for a watch of this price. If you only know Yema from their famous Superman, then sit up and take notice of the Flygraf. It’s something we hope to see them do a lot more of in the future.
Case/dial: 39mm diameter, stainless steel | Movement: Calibre YEMA2000, in-house, automatic, 29 jewels | Frequency: 28,800 vph (4 Hz) | Power reserve: 42h | Functions: Hours, minutes, seconds | Strap: Black canvas or black vintage leather | Price: $690 USD, more details at Yema.