The history of wrist watches is intimately tied to 20th century warfare, and the Pilot/Flieger/B-Uhr watches have a very fascinating history. The B-Uhr (plural is B-Uhren), stands for Beobachtungs-uhren, which in German means “Observation watches”. These pilot watches were regulated and tested to the highest chronometer standards during the late 1930s, and then they were issued to the bomber navigators of the Luftwaffe. The navigators then used the watches to plot their course accurately. When they go back to base, they had to return the watch to their commanders.
These watches needed to conform to all the practical requirements. For readability, they had to be very large, and in fact they actually measured 55mm in diameter during that time. They also featured a black dial with white Arabic numerals, although the design had the hour markers inside an inner ring by 1941.
The minute markers were in the outer ring. The hands were diamond shaped or shaped like an arrow at the end, and they were luminous too.
Of course these pilot watches needed to be extremely tough, and they were anti-magnetic too which is important for navigation. The oversized crown could be operated even with gloves, and pulling the crown stopped the seconds hand for synchronization and for correcting time discrepancies.
Today, modern pilot watches are the epitome of classic design. Vintage watches can be very expensive, but it’s actually possible to get an excellent modern versions at an affordable price point. These watches all feature black dials with arrowhead hands.
Laco Augsburg Type A
There were just 5 manufacturers for the B-Uhren originally, and one of them was Laco (which was known as Lacher & Company/Durowe at the time). Today they’re still making pilot watches, and the Laco Augsburg Type A pays homage to its beginnings.
Of all the pilot watches on this list, the Laco Augsburg Type A is the only one that features the hour markers in the outer ring. The round stainless steel case measures a more modest 42 mm and is 12.8 mm thick, with a synthetic sapphire dial window and luminous hands. The calfskin leather strap measures 20 mm wide. The movement is Japanese automatic, and it’s water resistant up to 15 meters.
The vintage look is cool and stylish, and it’s perfect for casual wear.
Laco Aachen Type B
Like its Type A counterpart, the Laco Aachen Type B has no date dial. After all, the original Laco watches during WWII didn’t have one either. What it does have is the Type B dial with the minute markers with huge numbers in the outer ring and with the hour markers in the inner ring.
It features the modern Citizen Miyota 821A automatic self-winding movement for excellent timekeeping accuracy. The dial markers and the hands are also treated with SuperLuminova so they’re readable even in the dark. The brown leather strap comes with rivets, and the case measures 42mm in diameter and 12mm thick. It’s water-resistant up to 50 meters.
Citizen AVION AW1361-10H
Most people consider the thick strap as the only drawback to this aviator watch. It’s not really a problem because they can easily replace the strap. The Citizen AVION AW1361-10H is one of the most iconic pilot watches today.
It doesn’t just have the usual pilot watch features like the minutes in the outer ring and the sword-like luminous hands. Like its predecessors, it has a very big case. While not quite up to the insane 55mm measurement that was used during WWII, for today’s sensibilities the 45mm-diameter case is still too large, especially for thinner wrists.
The dial display is also a bit busy. The inner ring marks the hours, and it offers both regular and military time. The date window offers 3 numbers, with the middle one as the actual date.
It does keep time accurately, as its movement is powered by Japanese quartz. It’s also resistant up to 100 meters so you can use it anywhere except when you go scuba diving.
Orient Flight watch
The Orient Flight based its look on the original pilot watches, but it does have some modern touches. So it comes with the minute markers on the outer ring along with luminous hands. But it also offers a date window and a large screw-down crown. It also features a screw-in case back that makes it water resistant up to 100 meters.
It has the Orient 21-Jewel Automatic (self-winding) movement. The rushed stainless steel case measures 42mm in diameter and 11.65mm thick. The strap is black leather.
For many, this is an ideal blend of traditional and modern design.
Seiko 5 SNK809
The Seiko SNK809 pilot style watch is the most affordable watch on our list, but you’ll never guess it when you see it. It’s affordable because it’s not water resistant (it’s “splash-resistant”), and the nylon strap is rather too casual. But those are the only drawbacks.
The dial display has the minute markers in the outside ring, but the case diameter is a more reasonable 37mm. The 21 jewel movement is very accurate, as it gains only 5 seconds a day. It’s a great entry level automatic watch and you’ll be proud to wear it.