Pilot watches may have started out as a practical timepiece for those in the aviation industry, but they’re now worn across the world as a smart and stylish everyday accessory. From affordable models under £100 to premium versions touching the £1 million mark, pilot watches span a huge spectrum of price points, so there really is something for everyone.
Before we get into the best pilot watches you can buy online, here’s a little guide to the historic accessory.
What are pilot watches?
Originally created as a practical alternative to the traditional pocket watch, pilot watches feature large, easy-to-read dials and extra functions like chronographs. They were first invented in 1904, when Louis Cartier (of the famous jewellers) designed the ‘Cartier Santos’, named after his friend, the Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont.
This new type of timepiece had wrist straps, so pilots could see it without having to move their hands from the controls. To this day, the iconic Cartier Santos remains a popular pilot around the world (see our write-up below).
Other manufacturers have added extra features and design details, making the watches easier for pilots to use in the sky. Modern-day models often have high-contrast or luminous dials for easy reading, and large winding crowns and rotating bezels, which are simple to use with gloves. Most also come with functions like chronographs and extra dials to track multiple time zones.
The best pilot watches you can buy today
Breitling Navitimer 1 B01 Chronograph
Known for creating some of the world’s best pilot watches, Breitling has partnered with stars like Brad Pitt, Charlize Theron and Adam Driver. This is its Navitimer B01 with a steel strap, 43mm steel case and a slide rule bezel. It’s also water-resistant in depths of up to 30m.
The smart design includes a black dial and red second hand, along with three contrasting chronograph sub-dials and a window for the date between the four and five o’clock markers.
Breitling finishes the watch face with glare-proof cambered sapphire crystal, so it’s easy to read in all weather conditions.
Rolex 2022 GMT-Master II 40mm
Possibly the most famous watch brand in the world, Rolex has a selection of popular accessories. Released in 1982, the GMT-Master II pilot watch is an updated version of the GMT-Master, originally created for globe-trotting professionals in 1955.
Thanks to the rotating bezel, this watch can display two time zones simultaneously. To get started, set your current time as you would any other watch, and use the red hand to indicate the hour in another time zone.
As darkness falls, you’ll still be able to read the watch accurately with the long-lasting Chromalight display, as the hands and hour markers all glow in the dark.
IWC Pilot’s Top Gun 41mm and 44.5mm
No list of the best pilot watches would be complete without a mention of IWC. The iconic brand sells a selection of intricately designed timepieces, which are not only associated with the Top Gun training programme, but worn by actors in the film franchise.
Alongside the more colourful IWC Pilot 41mm, these two watches form part of IWC’s Top Gun collection. They both come with an automatic self-winding function, a date display window and luminescent numerals and hands. As for the construction, you’ll get a black textile strap and sapphire crystal glass across the dial, which protects against displacement by drops in air pressure.
While the 44.5mm watch offers three chronograph sub-dials for additional timekeeping and a 46-hour power reserve, the 41mm model can offer 72 hours of back-up power.
Santos De Cartier
Although the Cartier Santos might look out of place among more modern aviation-style models, it’s actually considered to be the original pilot watch. Over a century ago in 1904, the Parisian jeweller Louis Cartier created one of the first ever wristwatches, inspired by his friend, the Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos Dumont. The ‘Cartier Santos’ made it easy for pilots to check the time while flying without reaching for a pocket watch.
Today, there are many different Cartier Santos watches available to buy, from steel and leather designs to much more showy diamond-encrusted versions. The two we’re showcasing offer smart style and everyday wearability, with steel casing and a sapphire crystal face. They’re also water-resistant down to a depth of 100m.
Choose the model with the sturdy SmartLink bracelet for simple resizing, or go for the calfskin leather strap with an adjustable folding buckle. They both come with either a medium or large face, so it’s worth considering the different sizing options.
Porsche Design Chronograph 1 – All Black Numbered Edition
This recently updated pilot watch is a modern version of the 1972 Porsche Design Chronograph 1, famously worn by Tom Cruise in the Top Gun franchise. A limited edition model, it’s created in Porsche Design’s manufacturing facility in Solothurn, Switzerland, which only makes 1,000 watches per year.
The new model keeps the iconic black design of the original and features a titanium strap, as well as seven-layer sapphire-crystal glass with scratch-proof and anti-reflective qualities.
The design also includes a chronograph hand, a 30-minute counter at 12 o’clock and a 12-hour counter at six o’clock. At nine o’clock, there’s a mechanical function display, opposite a date window at three o’clock.
On the underside of the watch, you can examine the intricate mechanics of the timepiece with the iconic Porsche Design winding rotor.
Sekonda Airborne Chronograph
With the goal of creating first-class watches at affordable prices, Sekonda has become a popular brand among discerning consumers. Since it was first launched in 1966, it has kept its collection small to focus on quality over quantity and develop some of the best pilot watches on the market.
Featuring a square-shaped face, the Sekonda Airborne is one of the more unusual pilot watches on the market, and should command attention on your wrist.
There are three sub-dials, allowing you to time periods of up to an hour, as well as a date display. A black canvas strap and water resistance up to depths of 50m complete the stylish package.
Citizen Red Arrows Skyhawk AT Limited Edition
If you’re a fan of the Red Arrows (who isn’t?) or fancy yourself as the pilot of one of those iconic aeroplanes, this watch could be for you. On the dial, you’ll find the aerobatic display team’s logo, while the official insignia is engraved on the back.
Buy one of these limited edition pilot watches and you’ll own one of 9,999 models worldwide.
This option is one of the best pilot watches you can get if you’re after a design with a digital display. It’s radio controlled with atomic clock synchronisation technology, and can tell you the time in 43 different countries. Meanwhile, the 24-hour chronograph is so accurate it displays the time to the nearest hundredth of a second.
Other cool features include the waterproof design, allowing you to dive to a depth of 200m, and Citizen’s Eco-Drive technology, which captures light energy to power the watch.
TAG Heuer Autavia Chronometer Flyback
For this smart timepiece, Tag Heuer takes inspiration from vintage pilot watches and gives them a 21st century upgrade for a modern look.
The brand combines a 42mm steel polished case with a silver dial and black ceramic bezel, and finishes the design with a black alligator-style strap. The hands on the watch face come with Super-Luminova technology, so you’ll still be able to read the time in low lighting.
Like all the best pilot watches, this one includes a clear section on the underside of the dial, revealing the fascinating mechanism beneath it.
Love browsing pilot watches? These intricately crafted timepieces from US brand Jacob & Co are utterly unique…and come with price tags of up to $1m. You’ll find 3D animals, solar systems and functioning music boxes trapped within the glass, and spot collaborations with legendary brands like Bugatti and iconic films such as The Godfather and Scarface.