Aviation Watch History

flieger – German for flyer, aviator or airman

To the watch enthusiast, a flieger is a watch that has direct routes to military aviation. Let’s be clear, I’m a huge flieger fan and it brings me great joy to research this topic. Clean, legible and functional, fliegers have stood the test of time since WWII.

Taking Flight

The link between flight and watches goes all the way back to the earliest days of flying. Our story begins with Alberto Santos-Dumont. Santos was a Brazilian aviation pioneer living in Paris in 1904. All over the world, controlled, sustained flight was being attempted. Santos realized that pocket watches were inconvenient for the budding aviator. Fortunate enough for him, he had a friend in jeweler Louis Cartier. Santos complained to Cartier about checking time on a pocket watch during flight. Cartier returned to his workshop to create a durable, legible watch. Cartier’s creation had (still has) a rectangular case with large roman numeral indices.

Santos was so smitten with his watch he wore it often. At the time, only women wore wristwatches and men carried pocket watches. It is important to note that Patek invented the wrist watch. Santos’ fame and penchant for wearing his watch ushered in a change in men’s watch preferences.

Cartier went on to mass produce the Santos watch with Edmond Jaeger movements and the Santos name on the dial. To this day, Cartier still produces the Santos watch.

Crossing the channel

More aviators took to the skies seeking to go further under challenges for prizes. One such aviator was Louis Blériot who took up the challenge to cross the English Channel for a £1,000 prize. In 1909, Blériot set out to cross the channel in his 35hp monoplane with a Zenith watch strapped to his wrist. Once known as the king of wrecks, Blériot crossed the channel in less than 40 minutes to win the prize. Blériot’s talk of his Zenith watch spurred further interest in men’s wristwatches. Blériot’s Zenith had luminous hands, oversize Arabic numerals, large crown, anti-magnetic hairspring, and a case that could attach to the instrument panel.

Lindbergh’s Hour Angle

Longines was the time keeper of Charles Lindbergh’s Atlantic crossing in 1927. Lindbergh used dead reckoning as his navigation choice for his solo flight. He chose not to use radio navigation or a co-pilot navigator as it would add weight. As well, he chose not to use celestial navigation as it would prove to difficult on a solo flight. After his flight, Lindbergh made a point to learn celestial navigation. A navy lieutenant by the name of Phillip Van Horn Weems taught Lindbergh how to navigate by the stars. In 1929, Weems developed the Weems Second-Setting watch created with Longines and Wittnauer. This unique nautical/aviation watch had a large dial with a rotating, subset center dial. The subset dial aided navigators with positioning that allowed for a second setting of time. The second setting allowed for time correction showing margin of error. After his solo flight, Lindbergh collaborated with Longines to improve the Weems watch. Lindbergh’s resulting watch added a navigational bezel and more minute and seconds indices.

Lindbergh’s actual watch in the Smithsonian

Then came WWII

World War II ushered in a stronger need for precision timing. In the short span of time between the great wars, airplanes had progressed. No longer simple flying machines, planes could now travel long distances carrying payloads. Both sides of the war set out to create timepieces for aviation oriented soldiers.

The American Timepieces – The American A-11 was not so much a watch as it was the specs for a watch. The specs for the A-11 were: 15 jewels, dust-tight, waterproof, hacking seconds, black dial, white indices, and a sound movement in variable temperature ranges. Waltham Watch Company, Elgin and Bulova all received the same specs and dedicated their watch works to producing the A-11. The specs also contained a note that company markings were for case backs only. The design of the A-11 satisfied the needs of aviators, artillery men and special forces alike. Hacking was a huge bonus for the military as it allowed for coordination.

The American A-11

The British Timepieces – During the war, British watchmakers focused on making naval and aviation instruments. Having a need for watches, the Ministry of Defence contracted with a group of Swiss watchmakers. The specs given to the Swiss were known as WWW (Wrist Watch Waterproof) also known as the Mark X (10). The companies producing the Mark X were (Buren, Cyma, Eterna, Grana, JLC, IWC, Timor, Record, Vertex, Longines, Omega, and Lemania). This group is often referred to as the “Dirty Dozen.”

Although approved for military use, the Mark X proved unreliable for aviation. The Ministry of Defence went back to the drawing board and developed the Mark XI. Some of the requirements for the Mark XI were:

  • matte black iron dial with Arabic numerals from 1-12 in white
  • high grade 12-ligne Swiss movement with a 36-hour power reserve
  • daily variation of no more than +/- 4 seconds
  • hacking seconds
  • 20ft waterproof case
  • magnetic shielding by use of a Faraday cage
  • acrylic crystal held by a retaining screw
  • stainless steel Bonklip bracelet

After reaching out to many watchmakers, IWC and JLC obtained the commission. Issued in 1949, the Mark XI became the watch for Commonwealth air crews. Overtime the Mark XI went through some changes such as a triangle replacing the 12 indices. These watches still live on in the IWC pilot watch lines.

British mark XI

The German Timepieces – Being on the other side of the war did not change the need for high-quality aviation timepieces. With the power of the German Luftwaffe, navigation watches were mission critical. The Reichs Ministry of Air Transport settled on a design known as the B-Uhr (Beobachtungs-uhr or observations watch). Key requirements for the B-Uhr were anti-magnetism, chronometer certified > 50mm case, hackable, central seconds, and an extra long leather strap. The long strap was for wear over flight jackets. The large case/dial was for easy legibility.

The original B-Uhr watch (known as type A) dials Arabic numbers 1 through 11 with a triangle and two dots at the 12:00 position. Type A dials were manufactured for less than a year before replacement with the type B.

The new Type B dial had large minute numerals 5-55 on the chapter ring with a pointer arrow at 12:00. The sub-chapter ring on the dial had the hour markers 1-12.

The amount of demand from the German army meant a single manufacturer was not workable. In the end, only five companies manufactured the German fliegers: A. Lange & Söhne, IWC, Stowa, Wempe, and Laco.

Wrist watches and aviation grew up together. The simplicity, utility and classic design have made many aviation watch designs iconic. To this day companies like IWC, Stowa and Wempe all have a clear linage to their earlier creations.