Reaching down to deploy the cupholder, you glance through your aviators at the chunky pilot’s watch on your wrist. You’re good for an on-time arrival. Suddenly, you spy a minivan bearing down on you at four o’clock so you quickly disable cruise control and switch into manual mode as you approach your exit. This is going to be tight. You apply power and surge ahead, the G-forces of the tight cloverleaf making you grit your teeth. Kenny Loggins wails from the speakers. You coast out of the turn with a smile: another successful sortie.

Admit it guys, we all have a little Walter Mitty in us, and navigating rush hour sometimes becomes a bombing run over the Indian Ocean. Watch companies know this and even if you never get much further forward than coach class, you can still wear a watch with the right stuff. The pilot’s watch is more popular than ever nowadays and, alongside the diver, the fighter pilot is the most common masculine archetype featured on countless watch company Websites.

So what is a pilot’s watch? Nowadays the distinction is largely in appearance only, and features like oversized winding crowns, distinctive Arabic numeral dials, propeller hands and riveted leather straps are modeled after the watches worn by Luftwaffe Fliegers, RAF aces and Top Gun hotshots . But many modern pilot’s watches also have useful features like crystals secured against sudden pressure drops, movements protected from magnetism and useful complications like a world timer or a chronograph. These features can be as useful on your back deck as much as on the flight deck.

We rounded up seven of the best pilot’s watches available and took them out to Floyd Bennett Airfield on the outskirts of Brooklyn to photograph them in their intended environment. We’re happy to report that they all earned their wings.

Our roundup continues after the jump.

Bell & Ross WW1-97 Reserve de Marche

Bell & Ross has made quite a name for themselves in recent times with their BR Instrument series, which ape the look and feel of the classic, squared-off analog flight gauges traditionally found in cockpits to a tee. However, they looked even further back, to the classic pilot’s watches of World War I, for their latest take on this popular genre.

Thanks to its oversized case and wire lugs, the WW1-97 is just the ticket for those who dream of taking to the skies in a canvas-winged bi-plane, with nothing but a single propeller and a machine gun to save them from the depredations of the evil Red Baron. Meant to evoke the classic pilot’s watches of the ’20s with its simple, easy to read dial, the WW1-97 goes a step further by incorporating a power reserve complication — “reserve de marche, if you’re Swiss — to let you know how long until it needs to land and refuel between sorties (yes, even automatic watches can be wound, if the the need arises).

There may be more expensive and more capable pilot’s watches out there, but you won’t find many more elegant than the WW1-97.
Buy Now: $4,500


Bremont MBII

You think you’re tough? Really? Well, if you’ve safely ejected out of a jet aircraft at several hundred miles per hour, then yeah, you probably are, in which case you’re eligible to own Bremont’s MBI. The MBI, which stands for Martin Baker One, was designed to be the most shock-resistant, anti-magnetic watch that Bremont could make, and thanks to rigorous testing done in conjunction with Martin-Baker, manufacturers of pretty much every modern ejection seat, it is.

What’s that? You haven’t ejected out of a jet at 500mph? That’s okay, because while you can’t buy the MBI, you can buy the MBII, which gets you all of the he-man goodness of the original — shock-resistant movement holder, anti-magnetic inner-case, Roto-Click elapsed time bezel and trick ejection cord-inspired second hand — but doesn’t require the requisite pound of flesh. What’s more, unlike the MBI, whose trademark Trip-Tik three-piece case is only available with a red anodized aluminum barrel, the MBII let’s you choose from orange, green and black.

So, once more, are you tough enough?

Buy Now: $4,950


Alpina Startimer Pilot Chronograph

Here’s proof that you don’t need to charge an arm and a leg to offer a classically-styled pilot’s watch. The Alpina Startimer Pilot Chronograph is highly evocative of IWC’s own Pilot’s Watch Chronograph, but it brings home the bacon for half the price. Mind you, this isn’t a dig against the IWC, which we flat-out love, but let’s face it, not everyone has the bones to throw down for one of these icons.

So, how does the Startimer stack up? How do a 44mm stainless steel case, highly legible dial with a bi-compax chronograph layout and Swiss construction sound? Yeah, we thought that sounded pretty good, too. The Alpina is a welcome addition to any flight locker, and we’d be proud to sport one on our wrist while targeting bogeys in the great blue yonder.

Buy Now: $2,795


IWC Big Pilot Top Gun Miramar

Let’s get this out of the way right now: this watch isn’t cheap. In fact, it’s pretty damn expensive. Of course, given that we’re talking about IWC here, that’s to be expected, since the Schauffhausen-based manufacture isn’t known for giving their watches away. It’s also to be expected since their Big Pilot’s Watch is the standard bearer by which all other pilots watches are measured. Indeed, the original saw action over the battlefields of WWII on the wrists of Allied and Axis fighter pilots alike. The contemporary models owe their generous diameter to the needs of these brave men, who required at-a-glance time read-offs for Time-On-Target and navigation purposes. Heck, even the oversized crown is a nod to the heavy gloves worn in the unpressurized, often freezing cockpits.

So, what does the Top Gun Miramar bring to the table that the standard Big Pilot’s watch doesn’t? Well, for starters, instead of stainless steel, the case is crafted out of polished ceramic, which is all but scratch-proof. Compounding this high-tech case material is a dial rendered in olive drab and khaki, which evokes images of daredevil pilots duking it out over the skies of Europe for air supremacy. Or Maverick and Iceman duking it out on the sand for volleyball supremacy. You choose, we promise not to judge. Under that gorgeous case and dial is IWC’s vaunted caliber 50110 automatic movement, which features their patented Pellaton pawl-based winding system and a generous seven-day power reserve, that can be measured by a subdial at three o’clock.

If you’ve got the means and you’ve got the wrist — remember, this isn’t called a “big” pilot’s watch for nothing — then kick the tires and light the fires, because your watch has arrived. True, the best of the best doesn’t come cheap, but then excellence rarely does.

Buy Now: $18,200


Hamilton Khaki Flight Timer

We all grew up with visions of being Snoopy in his Sopwith Camel, dogfighting with the Red Baron over the trenches of WWI, but let’s face it, the times they are a changin’. To this end, mechanical, analog-only pilot’s watches are anachronisms best left to our childhood fantasies — modern pilots need modern watches, right?

Well, Hamilton seems to thinks so, hence the Khaki Flight Timer. Sure, it may look like a normal watch, but notice those three windows on the dial? They’re what catapults this watch off the flat top of yesteryear and straight into the danger zone of the 21st century. In addition to the time, as shown by the traditional hour, minute and second hand, the Khaki Flight Timer can also record up to 20 flight logs and display the time in two different timezones plus UTC time. Additional functionality comes in the form of a stopwatch, countdown timer, multiple alarms, a flight time totalizer and an ISA temperature display.

It may not have the pedigree (or price tag) of some of the other aces in this flight group, but it can definitely fly with the best of them.

Buy Now: $1,445


Girard-Perregaux WW.TC Flyback World Timer

If you’re the sort who prefers the luxurious, leather-lined cabin of a Gulfstream G550 to the rugged cockpit of a P-51 Mustang, then Girard-Perregaux has just the watch for you. Designed with today’s well-heeled jetsetter in mind, the ww.tc Shadow can simultaneously tell the time in pretty much every city that one would want to be seen in. Trust us, if your city isn’t represented on its world time bezel, then you should probably move to one that is.

Like the IWC Big Pilot’s Watch Top Gun Miramar, the ww.tc Shadow is crafted from scratch-resistant ceramic, which contributes to its decidedly luxurious feel, and — ahem — luxurious price tag. Mind you, when it comes to Girard-Perregaux, we’re inclined to forgive the high cost of entry because their watches, simply put, rank among the top-tier of Swiss watch manufactures. The ww.tc does nothing to change our minds in this respect.

In addition to the aforementioned worldtimer, the ww.tc Shadow is also a flyback chronograph, which means that its in-house manufactured chronograph can be instantly restarted for subsequent time measurements — useful for timing how long it takes for the flight attendant to bring you your second (or third) martini on the final stretch of that interminable LA to TYO flight.

Buy Now: $23,850


Tsovet SVT-AT76

Fine, so you don’t have the budget for the IWC or the Girard-Perregaux, nor do you have the need for as technical an instrument as the Hamilton Khaki Flight Timer. What to do? Where to go? Tsovet has the answer.

Styled in the vein of Bell & Ross’s now iconic Instrument series, the Tsovet SVT-AT76 forgoes some of the Swiss frippery found in the others here, like a sapphire crystal and automatic movement, and swaps them out in favor of a mineral crystal and quartz movement. This is done in an effort to give you the essence of flight without the stratospheric cost associated with some of the finer examples of the genre. It also substitutes PVD-treated stainless steel for ceramic, but for the price, we’re not complaining.

This is a lot of watch for the money. Literally. Like the IWC, the Tsovet is a big ‘un, and at 48mm, this watch will not hide on your wrist, so you’d better be a social sort, because this one is going to get you noticed at the officer’s club.

Buy Now: $595

Photography by Jae Yoon. Additional contribution by Adam Craniotes.