A Brief History of the Pilot Watch


It goes without saying that in this day and age, the uncompromising characteristics and charm of men’s pilot watches is no longer solely the preserve of those in the cockpit. 

All those men who have been won over by the style and lured by the accuracy, reliability and legibility will want to get their hands on a modern iteration of this iconic watch type, and will be fascinated by the thoroughly intriguing history that is worth delving into.

The original objective of the humble pilot’s watch was a straightforward one, as you might expect – namely, to move timekeeping from the pocket and on to the wrist. This was due to a desire for enhanced convenience that led to the emergence of a style that has lasted for well over a century now, and the love of pilot watches is greater than it has ever been. 

The aviator’s timepiece became ever more complex as it evolved over time and it rapidly became a must have device for pilots, so they could calculate stats like how long an aircraft had been in the air and how much fuel had been consumed. 

As pilot watch features became more advanced, they would eventually be used as an instrument for navigation as well. It’s the legacy of those characteristics that lends the pilot’s watch the enduring appeal it continues to have to this day.



When what can be considered as a pilot watch first came to be, it’s fair to say that it’s quite a long way from what we’d consider as a pilot’s watch on today’s market. The timepiece that started it all so far as aviation watches is concerned was the Cartier Santos and this was debuted well over a century ago in 1904. 

This was the following year from when the American aviation pioneers, the Wright brothers, wowed the world with the first-ever powered, sustained and controlled flight of an aircraft. Brazilian pilot Alberto Santos-Dumont was heavily influenced by their mighty impressive endeavors and would soon become the first to achieve the feat in Europe, but also to take off unaided, flying an aircraft with a wheeled undercarriage as opposed to via track like the Wright Brothers.

In his preparation for his flight, Santos-Dumont turned to friend, horologist Louis Cartier, about the regular annoyance of having to reach into his pocket for a watch while handling the plane’s controls. It was from this observation and annoyance that what is thought to be the world’s first purpose-designed timepiece for pilots was created. 

The watch – which had a square case, Roman numerals on the dial and a comfortable leather strap – quickly began to turn heads of the general public when it appeared in newspaper photographs of Santos-Dumont’s aviation achievement. The fact that the pilot also wore the timepiece on every flight he took thereafter did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm for this attractive looking timepiece and ultimately led to Cartier putting the watch into production in 1911. And, with that, the pilot watch was born.



One of the biggest factors in the emergence of pilot watches into mainstream thinking was the dawn of the two World Wars, in which aviation was a cornerstone for strategic battle and something that gave the pilot’s watch a real shot in the arm from a popularity perspective. One watchmaker synonymous with aviation style timepieces is IWC Schaffhausen and they’re known to have created their Big Pilot watch for the German Air Force in 1940. The design is still one of the best pilot watch designs and just as recognisable today as it always was, courtesy of its bold, highly legible design aesthetic.

An important name around this time so far as watchmaking is concerned was Louis Bleriot who is said to have worn a wristwatch in July 1909 when he made the first-ever powered flight across the English Channel. As a result of this fact, the first wrist chronograph was developed around 1915, and this was a creation that was rapidly taken up by incredibly brave and fearless pilots of the First World War. 

Another name synonymous with aviation watches during the World Wars was U.S. Navy captain Philip Van Horn Weems, who was responsible for devising an independently adjustable seconds ring which was important because it allowed the pilots to precisely synchronise their watch with a radio time signal without stopping the sweep seconds hand. This was crucial because it helped to significantly reduce any potential margin for error that could send these pilots off course by many miles and potentially jeopardise a mission or their safe return to base.

During the Second World War, the production of dedicated pilot watches was destined to increase dramatically, with makers in America, Germany, France and Switzerland ramping up their manufacturing endeavours to deliver highly accurate, often large-cased pilot’s watches, chronographs and bomb timers that were the true forerunners of today’s ‘tool’ watches that have become a mainstay on the wrist of modern watch aficionados.



Given that the timepieces considered as the original pilot watches were purpose built to carry out their particular aeronautical functions, many modern watch wearers today are not likely to make full use of all the capabilities of their pilot watch, and that’s fine. Being a pilot is still undoubtedly a really ‘cool’ career choice or hobby and the watches intended for use in the cockpit will always be unbelievably popular amongst watch collectors. 

We’re understandably proud of the pilot watches we produce here at MTM and blood, sweat and tears goes into making these as robust, reliable and top-performing as can be. The proof is in the pudding, as our men’s pilot timepieces are seen on the wrists of armed forces personnel and those working the front lines on a daily basis. Built to last with an enduring quality that means you’ll want to pass it on from one generation to the next.

If you’re interested in a top-quality, military inspired US-made automatic pilot watch with the ultimate in aviation heritage, look no further than MTM Cobra and MTM Air Stryk pilot watch collections.

And if this isn’t what you’re looking for, we have a huge range of other pilot watches, automatic watches, chronograph watches and more available in our huge online store. Shop now!