A genre that is rarely tackled by independent watch brands is that of Flieger chronograph. Diving watch brands keep popping like mushrooms, but due to the fact that complicated movements such as chronographs cost more than double their three-hands alternatives, aspiring watchmakers almost always go for the latter to keep their price low. In this article, I would like to show a pick of XXI (twenty-one) contemporary timepieces that carry on the legacy of Flieger Chronographs. But before I begin, I would like to review the background history with the reader:
When it comes to iconic military pilot watches, there are 3 schools : the British, the German and the French. I could also mention the Czech and the Italian, but the amount of material is scarce. Why only these countries? Simply because they were the first to invest heavily in aviation at its early stage, and they needed timepieces for navigation. The French founded the World’s first flight schools, while the Germans and the British did build some of the best aircrafts of the times.
The British school
WWII British pilots were equipped with Watch-Wristlet-Waterproof timepieces. The design was specified and commissioned by the British Ministry of Defense. Several Swiss brands issued watches complying with the British MOD standard: Cyma, Eterna, International Watch Company, Jaeger-le-Coultre, Lemania, Longines, Record, Smiths or Timor. Making such watches became possible in the XX century thanks to the miniaturization of mechanics. Watchmakers could then build reliable movements that were smaller in diameter than a French inch (equal to 27.07 mm or 1.066 imperial inch).
Below, a British MOD standard from the 1970’s.
The German school
In Germany, there were two sub-groups of watches:
- Observer’s watches
Observer timepieces (Beobachtungsuhren) were directly derived from pocket watches. The movement received an additionnal bridge to transfer the subdial second motion to a central hand. Below, a savonette (seconds at 9 o’clock) Stowa calibre modified to show central seconds. These movements were then fitted in a case with lungs and an extended leather strap. The picture on the right shows an iconic Patek Philippe model from 1936 that allowed pilots to perform angular navigation. All other known Beobachtungsuhren only displayed hour, minute and seconds with hack feature. This Patek Philippe had a split-second, which is thought to be a bespoke elaboration. Several reputed brands issued Beobachtungsuhren, notably: A. Lange & Söhne, International Watch Company, Laco and Stowa.
The first chronograph built in series dated from the late 19th century. By early 1920’s miniaturization allowed to shrink the complication to diameters smaller than the French inch. From 1940 onwards, only a handful of German brands issued pilot chronographs, some of them benefitting from the Flyback feature. Brands like Hanhart, Heuer, Junghans and Tutima produced these types of watches.
The French school
Similarly to the Germans, and about a decade later, French pilots started relying upon wrist chronographs, most of them featuring the Flyback complication. Brands such as Airain, Auricoste, Blancpain, Breguet, Breitling, Chronofixe, Dodane, Mathey-Tissot, Vixa and Zenith all released Type XX and Type XXI chronographs.
Back to the subject…
early 2000’s late 1980’s, International Watch Company re-issued their WWW timepiece and based a chronograph on the design. Ten years later they upgraded the collection by keeping the WWW case and by throwing in the Beobachtungsuhr dial, thus creating the archetype of contemporary Flieger chronographs. I decided to list the common denominators between the watches from the three schools:
- black dial
- matching hands colour
- luminous indexes and hands
- absence of theodolite scale (no tachymeter, pulsometer nor telemeter)
- absence of graduated rotating bezel
Another requirement to be featured in my list was that the timepiece had to be featured on the official Website at the time of writing. Based on these criterion, I selected 21 contemporary watches and sorted them alphabetically:
Sadly, most of the pieces sold as Fliegeruhren lack the Flyback function, a complication that was invented specifically for pilots. Anyway, if you don’t intend to fly a spartan aircraft anytime soon, then most of those watches will do.
Low budget (less than USD 500)
If you’re tight with money, the Poljot and the Precista are accessible on a very tight budget. The first uses a movement based on a Swiss design and manufactured in Russia. The latter uses a movement design from Switzerland that is built in China and double-checked by Mr. Platts.
Entry-price (from USD 500 to 1,000)
The Ollech & Wajs gives you a vintage movement. Archimede and Steinhart have some competitively-priced pieces, but if you’re looking for a brand with real pedigree, Cabot Watch Company would fit the part.
Middle-price (from USD 1,000 to 2500)
Damasko is the most serious contender here. Their watches are probably the most technologically-improved pieces of the whole lot.
Upper range (from USD 2,500 to 5,000)
IWC would probably be the most legitimate, but Sinn beats them short with their Flyback Valjoux, which is still reasonably priced considering the modified movement. If you want to own a piece of History, then the Tutima would be a good pick. If you’re a fashion victim, you would want to be showing off with the Bell & Ross or the Hanhart on your wrist.
Prestige (above USD 5,000)
If you like manufactures watches and understatement, then the Glashütte would be for you… but since you would be spending an awful lot of money anyway, then it would make more sense to go for their Panomatic Counter XL, which features a Flyback and a countdown timer.