7 Top Features to Look for in a Pilot Watch

Are you looking for a watch with an aviation-inspired style and legible design? Pilot watches are your perfect choice. These timepieces were initially built for literal pilots back in the early 1900s. But today, you don’t need to be a captain to own one of these rugged and eye-catching watches.

The best pilot watches combine form and function with oversized cases, striking dials, and rotating bezels. Beyond the cockpit, their rugged construction and functionality translate well to everyday life. Read on as we break down the top features to look for when shopping for these aviator-approved timepieces.

#1 Large Case Size

When choosing a pilot watch, opting for a large case size has advantages. Pilot watches typically range from 40 mm to 55 mm, with many classic styles landing in the 42-46 mm range. A wide range of pilot watches are available in sizes up to 55 mm for maximum wrist presence.

Larger cases allow for better readability of the dial and increased functionality. Bigger cases provide more real estate for large numerals, bolder markers, and highly legible hands. The addition of useful pilot watch complications like slide rule bezels, GMT hands, and chronograph counters also benefit from a more spacious dial.

In terms of functionality, bigger cases accommodate larger crowns and pushers for operating chronograph and other features. The ample space also makes rotating bezels easier to grip and manipulate.

#2 Highly Legible Dials

After the expansive case, a highly legible dial is the next essential ingredient of a great pilot watch. The dial needs to display the hours, minutes, and seconds in a crisp, unambiguous fashion.

To achieve excellent legibility, most pilot watches opt for high-contrast dials. Typically, that means a neutral-colored background with numerals and indices in a starkly different shade, making the time indications stand out. Lume is another common trait. The hands and markers are coated in a luminescent paint or material to maintain visibility in low-light conditions.

In addition, pilot watches frequently utilize large Arabic numerals rather than more stylized stick or diamond indices. The bold numerals are simpler to discern at speed. Some models only feature numerals at the 12, 3, 6, and 9 o’clock positions for quick orientation.

#3 Leather or Metal Strap

A pilot watch’s strap or bracelet finishes off its rugged aesthetics and practical design. The strap needs to look sharp but also withstand the demands of aviation. Most classic pilot watches utilize either leather straps or metal bracelets to meet both style and function.

Leather straps complement the vintage vibe of early pilot watches. Typically made from calfskin or other quality leather, the band lends a stylish, nostalgic look. Many feature riveted straps as a throwback to the leather jackets and gloves worn by heroic pilots of the past.

Distressed leather bands are a popular choice for an extra dash of old-school pilot flair. These mimic the well-worn, broken-in look of a beloved flight jacket. Wearing a watch with this kind of leather strap truly evokes the early days of aviation.

#4 Anti-Reflective Crystals

The crystal protecting the dial needs to be tough but also give you a clear view of the time without reflections getting in the way. That’s why good pilot watches use sapphire crystal. They are way more scratch-resistant than the acrylic used in early aviation watches.

But here’s the thing about sapphire — it’s so clear that it can act like a mirror and bounce light around. It’s not ideal to sneak a peek at your watch on a sun-drenched day.

Luckily, watchmakers figured this out. Applying anti-reflective coatings to the sapphire’s inside can kill those glares and reflections so you can easily view the time.

Whether tracking time zones or your pizza delivery, you’ll appreciate how the crystal keeps the dial visible from any angle. No frustrating reflections to obscure the precise timekeeping that pilot watches are known for.

#5 Rotating Bezel

You’ll notice a common feature on most pilot watches — a rotating bezel around the outside of the dial. This handy little bezel serves as a quick way for pilots to track important time measurements.

Pilots can easily keep track of elapsed time by turning the bezel so the triangle marker lines up with the watch’s minute hand. It was useful for timing takeoffs, fuel consumption, approaches — you name it.

Some bezels rotate smoothly in either direction. Others click uni-directionally to avoid accidental bumps resetting the bezel. Either way, they provide an easy “analog stopwatch” complication right on the watch.

You probably aren’t doing much aviation timekeeping in your daily lives. But don’t underestimate the humble rotating bezel! It can help keep track of parking meters, cooking times, work breaks, or your kid’s soccer game.

#6 Screwed Down Crown

Pilot watches aren’t messing around when it comes to keeping water and debris out. That’s why many models have a screwed-down or screw-in crown to seal and protect the watch.

The crown is threaded into the case to compress the gaskets inside. This prevents moisture or dust from entering where you wind the watch. You will need to unscrew the crown before you can set the time. But it locks the elements out from dust and water.

A screwed-down crown feature may seem like overkill if you aren’t diving into the ocean with your watches on. But for military pilots back in the day, a screwed crown prevented high-altitude pressure changes from fogging up the crystal or damaging the movement.

#7 Automatic Movement

Many of today’s top pilot watches are powered by self-winding automatic movements rather than standard quartz batteries. These mechanical movements use the motion of the wearer’s wrist to power the watch.

How does it work? A small weight inside the watch slides back and forth as you move, winding the mainspring that drives the watch’s hands. No batteries are required. Automatics keep ticking as long as you wear them daily.

Early cockpit instruments ran on mechanical movements, so automatic pilot watches maintain that traditional feel. And unlike batteries, a mechanical movement won’t abruptly stop if it runs low on power.

Reliability is key when you’re miles above the earth and need an accurate timeframe. Automatics deliver consistent accuracy and eliminate the hassle of replacing watch batteries.

A Timeless Look, Ready for Takeoff

With their bold, aviation-inspired design, pilot watches manage to be both daring and readable. The oversized cases, crisp dials, and rotating bezels give these timepieces a rugged style while maintaining essential utility. Whether you aspire to be a pilot or just want to sport their iconic look, a great aviator watch can handle adventures in the air and on land. Slip on one of these watches to feel like you’re a pilot without ever leaving the ground.




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Faisal is the cofounder and automotive photographer at Unfinished Man. He provides insider perspectives on the latest rides through his acclaimed photography. Faisal also serves as the site's watch expert, staying on the pulse of emerging timepieces. His seasoned eye for men's lifestyle products makes him an authoritative voice.

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