Pilot watches make up a big part of horological history and many timepieces through the ages have been made by watchmakers specifically for the aviation industry or for those who were fans of the identity and style. Due to the novelty of aviation watches we see a market flooded with all kinds of designs so I thought I would take a look at 5 automatic pilots that stood out to me due to their style, quality and build but were also affordable.
The quartz may not be the purist’s choice but it makes this piece keep time accurately so you can focus on the other details. This timepiece is a handsome one that combines smooth polished touches with brushed finishes on a stainless steel case. The crown is guarded tightly and has the Hamilton logo on top. The anti-reflective sapphire crystal means that you hardly notice the glass and the screwed-down caseback ensures the piece sticks to its 200m water resistant rating. The black dial has large Arabic minute numerals around the outer ring with the smaller inner ring housing the hour numerals. The stainless steel skeleton sword hands each have a sizeable lume with a slightly too long arrow hand, in my opinion. There is a large arrow pointer at 12 o’clock. The calfskin gets a bit easily wrinkled which makes it look a little less attractive and the striped look of the large minute numerals also looks a little bit cheap. The 42mm size makes for comfortable daily wearing and will appeal to a wide audience.
The AVI-8 watchmakers made their intentions clear from the get-go with the name of their timepiece. Their word play on aviator is to turn the word into something that you actively pursue, to aviate (not yet in the dictionary). The Flyboy is in tribute to a legendary pilot, Tuck, who typifies the rise of the hardy Flyboys and the similar characteristics the AVI-8 pilot fans have. The grainy texture of the dial contrasts the raised SuperLumiNova coated indexes. The iconic 0 Arabic index is at 12 o’clock with the 8 and 9 being left out to make space for the 24 hour sub-dial. The other sub-dial is the minute hand with a red arrow, somewhat resembling a plane. The watch hands are skeletal and purposefully large for quick time reading. Sitting on top of the dial is an anti-reflective crystal house in a brushed stainless steel case. The case is a standard 42mm in diameter but the width is the stand out here at 16mm thick so it would possibly need to worn with certain outfits only. There is an antique crown at 2 o’clock which makes for great wrist mobility and the Miyota 8247 movement will keep your time well with very little effort from your side. You can grab a glimpse of it through the exhibition caseback. The brown leather calfskin looks and feels like luxury and the more you wear it the more comfortable I would expect this strap to become. A piece like this for under $ 500 is a surprise for me and the fact that it is not Swiss made almost flies over your head.
The Accu sports classic good looks with some luxury characteristics that make the lower price point a bit surprising. There is a dependable automatic Swiss self-winding mechanism with hacking second hand keeping your time. The polished trappings on this stainless steel case give a luxury look and the heavy nature of this piece makes it feel pretty sturdy. At 42mm the weight of this piece is better balanced for longer use so it won’t become too uncomfortably heavy if used as a daily wearer. The back of the case is screwed down with no interesting artwork decorating it other than the usual watch descriptions including the 99ft water resistant disclaimer. I would stray away from using this piece during water activities and rather keep it for your dress nights or smart casual days. The dial is dark grey and has been left free of additional writing or decorations that would distract from the minimalist, luxury appearance. The chapter ring has small Arabic numerals for the minutes and 1/1000 markers just slightly in front of them. Long, thin polished bars are used for the hour markers and at 3 o’clock we have a tiny date window making an appearance. The crocodile strap suits the style of the piece although something a bit more imaginative would’ve been refreshing. The screw crown looks a little bit too jagged in my opinion and could have been a little smaller but doesn’t take too much away from the overall appearance.
If the GPW were a person it would be the timepiece that would be the most likely to do Crossfit in this line up. The case is made from Grade 2 Titanium and has a sandblasted finish which makes it look rock hard and less likely to draw attention through reflection when on the job. Some German KRK (reaction unit) members were involved in the making of this timepiece which should help you make sense of some of the features included in this piece. The bezel is made from the same Titanium material and has large luminous Arabic numerals on it for easy readability. There is a crown guard so your screw crown doesn’t get caught on anything it shouldn’t. Simple come as simple goes with this dial. It is black with a combination of dots and bars for indexes and the GPW logo at 6 o’clock. The small date window is at 3 o’clock and the second timezone functionality is at 12 o’clock. The sapphire crystal is made to be extra scratch resistance and can be put through tough daily use without impeding your view of the dial. There is a black field rubber strap which you can only imagine can be a little bit uncomfortable. This piece is unbelievably lightweight which is ideal for regular active use and if you want it to be a bit lighter and even more comfortable you can look at putting a black or dark green NATO strap on this piece. I like the GDW because of its weight and 42.5mm case size but I think this piece will appeal to a very specific watch lover. The plongeur hands are more common in divers but this piece is multi-purpose and designed for wide use. There is a Swiss quartz battery operating this watch which at this price point still makes this watch a great buy.
I could picture the Wright brothers wearing something close to the Laco Type A when they first took flight. This piece is as vintage as they come and the lack of frills and thrills make it a pleasure to look at. The dial is black and the only bit of text on it is the Laco brand at 12 o’clock. This really makes the dial feel more spacious and takes less attention off the fact that the Arabic numerals are quite large. The 12 o’clock was replaced with an arrow with two little dots next to it and a strong lume on all of the markers. I like that there are only second markers between the hours because I am often baffled by the addition of split second markers when there is no purpose behind it. There is a sapphire crystal on the front and back of the case. The case is beautifully round and brushed to avoid small scratches being visible and to preserve the appearance of the piece for a longer time. I like that Laco went for the antique crown with no brand on so that it more closely resembles the original German pilot from WWII. There is a leather strap with two rivets on each side which is another vintage detail that makes this piece look so iconic. This piece wears really comfortably and the leather adjusts in no time but I would avoid water as a rule due to the low resistance rating and the risk of damaging the strap. The Miyota automatic self-winding movement isn’t a showstopper but the fact that you can get a reliable automatic vintage piece for this price is a feat in itself.
The aviation industry runs deep in the watchmaking industry which makes competition really tough. If you can do something unique or can produce a top class vintage look you will already be a step ahead of the rest. Keeping costs down and quality up in this process makes the challenge even greater which is why the pieces above stand out to me. The AVI-8 pieces are regularly innovative and this grainy textured pilot is a particular favourite of mine which makes it stand out just a touch from the rest.