The Design Features of an Aviator’s Watch you Should be Looking for


Thinking about adding a pilot watch to your line up in 2021? You’re not alone. Pilot watches are some of our most popular offerings here at MTM. But it’s often difficult to know which features you should be on the look out for and which typify an aviator’s watch, but fear not – we here at MTM are experts in such things and have some top class pilot watches on our digital shelves to prove the point. We know what makes a high caliber aviation timepiece and will impart this knowledge on to you so you can make the right decision when purchasing a pilot watch in 2021.

Whilst dive watches have an official definition of certain features that they need to possess in order to be considered a dive watch, no such definition exists for pilot watches so it can be a little open to interpretation but, in most cases, there are some common design elements which you should be looking for when you’re planning to invest in a new pilot watch for your wrist. Each and every watchmaker will have its own take on what a pilot’s watch should be, depending on the needs of the wearer. However, there are some key elements that single these watches out from the crowd and it is these which we will take a look at in this article.

Aviator watches are exceptionally popular in horology circles and for good reason. They are so highly valued due to their utilitarian visuals and impactful readability. They are seen more as statement pieces nowadays than the essential tool watches that they were first used for in the air. It’s fair to say that pilot’s watches, much the same as dive watches, were born from necessity. Most consider the first wristwatch to be considered a “pilot’s watch” was devised by Louis Cartier for dapper aviator, Alberto Santos-Dumont, in order for him to accurately time his flights. Its technical specifications were simple, much more basic than seen with the military watches of the mid-20th century, and have come to typify what we would expect to see in a modern day aviator’s watch.



First and foremost, pilot watches have to be sufficiently sizeable to be easy to read quickly whilst flying. Also, for the sake of readability, aviator watch dials were as contrasted and luminous as they could be and operating these timepieces was also made as straightforward as possible in order to avoid errors and inaccuracies in monitoring your flight path and distances. As you would expect, accuracy and precision were the most pivotal features and other crucial components of a pilot watch include protection against shocks, magnetic fields and sudden drops in pressure (with a crystal secured against any displacement) – all of which are factors that might well come into play whilst navigating the skies.

Something that you’ll often witness with an aviators watch is a flyback chronograph. This feature is much loved by pilots as it saves time when recording several elapsed times in a row and the fact it can be returned to zero and restarted with a single tap of a button. Rather than the traditional stop-reset-start sequence, which requires three operations, the Flyback Chronograph feature of an aviator watch goes through all the steps by just pressing the reset push-button once. This is important for pilots because these resets assisted waypoint navigation and grid searches, meaning pilots could transition “on the fly” as it were.

Dial shape is another defining feature of a pilot timepiece and, traditionally speaking, you’d often expect to see an “onion” or “conical” crown on this type of timepiece. When flying back in the day, pilots were exposed to exceptionally cold flying conditions, which facilitated them wearing heavy gloves to prevent their hands from freezing. As such, a bold crown design was a much-needed feature so as to be able to operate the timepiece effortlessly, even with cumbersome, gloved hands. This is why most pilot’s watches came equipped with oversized (so-called “Big Crown” watches) crowns, with two recurring shapes: onion (rounded) or diamond (conical) being the most commonly witnessed varieties.

Technical Features 


Magnetic fields are another issue that pilot watches needed to take in their stride and the design feature deployed to tackle this was so-called soft iron cages. A pilot’s cockpit is one of the most magnetic environments a timepiece can be put in and ordinarily, anti-magnetism was achieved using the principle of a Faraday cage: a soft iron inner cage surrounding the movement and shielding it from the magnetic fields of the cockpit. With the dawn of anti-magnetic materials, contemporary aviator timepieces are less and less equipped with such heavy, space-consuming cages. Their movement components are typically made in silicium or amagnetic alloys now, which means that they are inherently shielded against magnetic fields.

Another feature of pilot watches which is regularly seen on watchmaker’s designs today is a GMT indication. This contemporary non-military design feature regularly finds its way into the DNA of pilot’s timepieces. Essentially, it is the indication of multiple time zones and is a extremely functional feature for anyone travelling across different time zones regularly – something that pilots do more than most of course. The Rolex GMT Master, first released in the mid-1950s, is often seen as the archetype of the GMT watch. It was conceived alongside Pan American Airways to equip their crews – civilians, but still pilots. The GMT (or second time zone) is shown using an additional hour hand rotating on a 24-hour scale and is read on the two-tone bezel showing day and night. 

The above features are just a selection of the sort of characteristics you might witness with a pilot watch and by no means a definitive list. That’s the beauty of watches built for adventures in the sky, they can offer so many different options from a design and functionality perspective and finding the right one for you will be dependent on a number of different factors.

Want to add an aviator’s watch to your line up of timepieces? We’ve got some excellent options here at MTM such as our Silver Cobra 44 Pilot Watch, Green Air Stryk I Pilot Watch and the supremely stealthy Black Air Stryk II. Our pilot watches are some of the most respected and sought after and we proudly make each one in our downtown LA workshop to exacting standards and specifications. Pilot watches to be proud of and built for a life in the skies.