What started as a batch of 1,200 watches made in 1941 has since become one of the most iconic watch designs in history. The Beobachtungs-Uhren (B-Uhren), or Fliegers (“pilots” auf Deutsch), made for the German Luftwaffe, were intended only as flight tools. The paramount focus of the Flieger was legibility; robustness and accuracy were factors as well, but if the navigator or pilot couldn’t quickly tell the time, the watch was of no use.
The Flieger was primarily made for the navigator (the “Beobachter”), and was not actually issued to keep, but as flight equipment with the expectation that the watch be returned post-mission. It was made in two types, A and B, which had similar aesthetics: a 55-millimeter case diameter, a matte black dial with luminous markers and hands, a pocket watch movement, the trademark triangle 12:00 marker, and a long leather strap with enough material to be worn around the outside of pilot’s jacket. The difference between the two was the dial layout — the Type A being very simple, more of a traditional clock layout, and the Type B as an intuitive natural progression.
The Type B displays the standard minute track, but instead of an hour indicator for every 5 minutes, there’s a numeric minute indicator which lines up perfectly with the length of the minute hand. On the inner part of the dial, an additional ring lines up with the hour hand and displays markers for each of the 12 hours. At a glance, it’s an incredibly easy dial to read. In fact, if you can’t read a Type B Flieger, it’s a safe bet you’d have trouble with any watch.
The original Flieger manufacturers — IWC, A. Lange und Söhne, Stowa, Laco, and Wempe — remain household names. But lucky for watch nerds, a fat wallet or a giant’s wrist isn’t necessary to get the look and feel of a Flieger. With the exception of Lange, each brand still produces varying degrees of Fliegers, from traditional to modern, high-end to affordable. Then again, other great brands make Flieger-inspired timepieces today, some faithful reproductions and some that take creative license. Here are a few of our favorites from both the classic Deutsche set and some great newcomers.