HERO: Patek Philippe Calatrava Pilot Travel Time Chronograph Ref. 5924G

The 12 Best Pilot Watches at European Watch Company

In the crowded category of “tool watches”, pilot watches are an incredibly popular variant. While they may not be quite as popular as dive watches, the heritage and unique design language has landed them solidly among the favorites of collectors everywhere. Pilot watches anchor the entire catalogs of brands such as IWC and Breitling (among others) and because of this, we thought we would put together a list of 12 of our favorite models that have been through European Watch Company’s doors. Before we get into that, though, allow us to provide some background on the pilot watch and how they came to be.

What is a Pilot’s Watch?

The question of what makes a watch a pilot’s watch can be difficult to answer. Not all pilot watches are the same or even offer the same functionality, but there are certain features that are seen more often than not. First and foremost, pilot’s watches tend to have extremely legible dials that are quick and easy to read at a glance. To aid in legibility, they tend to be larger in size with oversized white Arabic numerals on their dials. Many were designed to assist pilots in making quick calculations (especially since most pilot watches were developed prior to computers). The Rolex GMT-Master had two time-zones so pilots could easily determine both the local time and the time at their destination. The Breitling Navitimer had a slide rule integrated into its bezel so pilots could easily make calculations related to time and distance while in flight. You often also see pilot watches with chronographs which aid in time and distance calculations. Bottom line, aviation watches need to be legible and also be able to aid a pilot in their flight and navigation.

When were Pilot Watches First Developed?

Pilot watches date back to the early 1900s. Indeed, it was just a year after Wright Brother’s first flight in 1903 that Louis Cartier developed the Santos, the first pilot’s watch, for friend and aviator, Alberto Santos-Dumont. Santos-Dumont needed a legible watch that he could quickly check while in flight. The Santos, with its white dial and large Roman numeral indexes, fit the bill.

What are our Favorite Pilot Watches?

In this guide, we put together a list of 12 of our favorite pilot watches. From historically significant pieces like the Cartier Santos and Breitling Navitimer, to the more recent H. Moser & Cie Heritage Pilot, there is a little something for everyone. Let’s dive in!

Cartier Santos

When it comes to pilot watches, the Cartier Santos is the undisputed original. Alberto Santos-Dumont, a Brazilian inventor and aviator, asked his friend Louis Cartier to design him a watch that could easily be used during flight. Cartier delivered the iconic Santos that we have come to know and love, in wristwatch form instead of the more popular pocket watches of the time which allowed Santos-Dumont to easily check the time while in flight. Since its debut in 1904, the Santos has become one of Cartier’s most iconic watches, and due to its heritage and timeless style, the Santos is not only one of our favorite pilot watches, but one of our favorite stainless steel sport watches as well.

IWC Big Pilot Ref. IW501001

IWC Big Pilot Ref. IW501001

We would venture to guess that when most collectors think of pilot watches, they likely think of IWC. And among IWC’s vast catalog of pilot watches, the Big Pilot is the most iconic. From it’s black dial and bright white Arabic numerals to its power reserve indicator and onion crown, this watch is made for utility. At 46.2mm in diameter, it might be too large for some wrists, but you can’t deny its legibility. If you are looking for a pilot’s watch with some serious heritage, the IWC Big Pilot is a great option.

IWC Big Pilot Perpetual Calendar Rodeo Drive Limited Edition IW503001

IWC Big Pilot Perpetual Calendar "Rodeo Drive" Limited Edition Ref. IW503001

Besides the pilot watch, IWC is probably best known for one other complication, the perpetual calendar. Many of their most iconic models, including the Portugieser and Big Pilot, have been fitted with perpetual calendars. If you like the style of the Big Pilot, but want something a little out of the ordinary, the IWC Big Pilot Perpetual Calendar Rodeo Drive Ref. IW503001 is a perfect fit. The watch features all the hallmarks of a Big Pilot, but, instead of a steel case, this model features one made of black ceramic. Add in the blue sunray dial and you have a highly capable piece with just the right amount of flash.

Breitling Navitimer B01 Chronograph

Breitling Navitimer B01 Chronograph

One of the most famous, and indeed most useful, pilot watches is the Breitling Navitimer. First released in 1954, the Navitimer not only includes a chronograph, but a slide rule bezel as well. This unique feature allows the wearer to perform multiple different calculations related to time, speed, distance, and conversions very quickly, which in the earlier days of flight, was extremely helpful to pilots. Do you need a slide rule bezel when flying a modern airplane (or when sitting at your desk…)? Probably not, but we appreciate the Navitimer for its deep history and functionality. Now we just need to figure out how to use a slide ruler…

Patek Philippe Ref. 5520P-001

Patek Philippe Calatrava Pilot Travel Time 24-Hour Alarm Ref. 5520P-001

A Patek Philippe Grand Complication probably isn’t what you think of first when you think of pilot watches, but the 5520P-001 is both. The 5520P boasts a travel time complication and a 24-hour alarm that chimes using a gong instead of the standard memovox style alarm. On top of these complications are month and date apertures at 12 o’clock plus a classic vintage-inspired pilot watch aesthetic with big, blocky hour markers. If you are looking for an ultra-complicated pilot watch from a premium brand, the 5520P is a great option.

Patek Philippe Calatrava Pilot Travel Time Chronograph Ref. 5924G

Patek-Philippe-Pilot-Travel-Time-Chronograph-5924G-010

Patek Philippe has really leaned into pilot watches in recent years and among our favorites is the ref. 5924G Calatrava Pilot Travel Time Chronograph. While the watch is very similar in style to the 5520P seen above, this white gold timepiece only features dual time and chronograph complications. The real star of the show, however, is the dazzling sunray blue dial that is just stunning. Unlike most of the blue sunray dials we see on watches, the 5924G features a unique light blue color that you just don’t see often.

Zenith Pilot Big Date Flyback

Zenith Pilot Chronograph Flyback Big Date Ref. 03.4000.3652/21.1001

Zenith is another brand that has more than its fair share of heritage in the pilot watch category and in 2023, they completely updated their offering. Gone was the vintage-inspired Type 20 (which we actually love) replaced by a more modern collection that includes the Big Date Flyback Chronograph. The Big Date Flyback is one of our favorites from the new collection thanks to its big date and pop of red and green on the dial and chronograph seconds hand. If you are looking for a more contemporary pilot, Zenith is the brand to look at.

H. Moser & Cie Heritage Pilot Center Seconds Funky Blue Dial

H. Moser & Cie Heritage Pilot Center Seconds Funky Blue Dial

Moser’s claim to fame has always been their beautiful dials and the Heritage Pilot Center Seconds with Funky Blue Dial doesn’t disappoint. The watch features a very retro-pilot aesthetic, from the onion crown to the narrow, wire-inspired lugs and vintage typeface. This is all contrasted by the very modern blue sunray gradient dial. For the collector looking for a blend of modern and vintage, the Moser Heritage Pilot Center Seconds is a great choice.

Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch

Are astronauts pilots? Is a hot dog a sandwich? We would argue that they most definitely are (we think) and what is the watch most associated with astronauts? Well that would be the Omega Speedmaster. Famously, the Speedmaster was the first watch worn on the Moon, after being the only piece to pass NASA’s rigorous testing. We might be biased, but we’re pretty sure that fact alone gives the Speedy the street cred to be considered a pilot’s watch.

Rolex GMT-Master II Pepsi Ref. 126710BLRO

Rolex GMT-Master II "Pepsi" Ref. 126710BLRO

The story goes that in the 1950s Pan-Am (the now defunct airline), approached Rolex about designing a watch for their pilots that allowed them to track multiple time zones (the time at home and at their destination). The result was the original Rolex GMT-Master with red and blue (Pepsi) bezel. Why did Rolex include a dual-colored bezel? It allowed the pilots to easily distinguish between day and night. Pilot’s watch pedigrees don’t get much more storied than that!

Rolex Air-King Ref. 126900

Rolex Air-King Ref. 126900

The Air-King is Rolex’s other pilot watch. Unlike every other Rolex watch, the Air-King foregoes typical hour indexes (besides 3, 6 and 9 o’clock) for a minutes scale. This allows pilots to better compute departure and arrival times on the fly. Beyond its functionality, the watch retains a classic look and has gone through very few changes over the years. Looking for a Rolex with aviation heritage (including being worn by British pilots during World War II)? Look at the Air-King.

Tudor Black Bay GMT Ref. 79830RB

Tudor Heritage Black Bay GMT Ref. 79830RB

While the Tudor Black Bay GMT doesn’t have the heritage of the Rolex GMT-Master II, it shares common DNA. It absolutely qualifies as a pilot’s watch and is especially appealing to those looking for something a little more affordable than a Rolex. The Black Bay GMT even features the blue and red “Pepsi” bezel found on the original GMT-Master. And if you are one of the many collectors jonesing for a Rolex “Coke” bezel that has been out of production for years now, Tudor just released a 39mm Black Bay GMT with a black and red bezel. Touche Tudor, touche.

Join 75,000+ Other Watch Enthusiasts

Get our new arrivals first.