The first pilot watch was created in 1904 by Louis Cartier for his Brazilian aviator friend Alberto Santos -Dumont. Santos had trouble checking the time on his pocket watch so asked his friend Cartier to create a watch he could use whilst flying. The Cartier ‘Santos’ has the distinction of being one of the first wristwatches and pilots watches. You can buy a Cartier ‘Santos’ centenary watch.
One of the first superstars of aviation was Louis Blériot who became the first man to fly across the English Channel. Blériot claimed the £1000 prize by flying over the 31 miles of steel grey water in 40 minutes, sometimes reaching the dizzy height of 300 feet. Strapped to Blériot’s wrist was a specially made Zenith watch which had two hallmarks of future pilot watches: over- sized Arabic numerals and a luminous dial. Of the Zenith, Blériot said, “I am very satisfied with the Zenith watch, which I usually use, and I cannot recommend it too highly to people who are looking for precision.” In 1939 Zenith launched the Zenith Montre d’Aéronef Type 20 to honour Blériot’s achievements
As the First World War raged over northern France and Belgium the British Army issued the pilots of the Royal Flying Corps pocket watches which were durable and accurate enough to be reliable in combat situations. These were the world’s first pilot watches issued by the military. The watches were made by the top watch manufacturers of London and Geneva, but they all carried the nondescript name ‘Mark IV’ and after 1916 ‘Mark V’. So prized were the watches that they were the only piece of equipment that pilots were ordered to save if their plane crashed. The Lufbery design is inspired by these pocket watches.
During the mid-1930’s Adolf Hitler began rearming Germany. Although banned from doing so under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles the Nazis began building their air-force from scratch. The military high command knew that if the Luftwaffe was going to be an effective fighting force they would need a watch that was so legible that it could be read in any conditions and under any circumstance. The RLM (Reichs-Luftfahrtministerium), the organisation in charge of aircraft development, was given the task of creating a watch that could be successfully used by pilots, engineers and bombers on night missions. The B-Uhr was the watch they created. At 55mm and using a pocket watch mechanism the B-Uhr was perfect for the levels of visibility you get at 30000 feet at 3am.
During the dark days of WW2 the RAF ordered thousands of Omega watches as they were seen as durable enough to survive the conditions pilots and bombers endured. Originally the watches were supplied in a high quality nickel cases, but as the War dragged on and money ran out the cases were replaced with cheaper alloys.