Flight of Fancy
Timekeeping: IWC Big Pilot’s Watch Perpetual Calendar Top Gun
Storied Swiss watch manufacture, International Watch Company (IWC) declared that 2012 would be the year of the pilot’s watch, and to this end they completely revamped their iconic line of pilot’s watches with new models, new materials and new complications. Of these, one watch really stood out from the rest: the Top Gun Big Pilot’s Watch Perpetual Calendar. Looking like something that Darth Vader might’ve worn while piloting his X1 Tie Fighter over Dresden, it’s a commanding beast with an odd — for a pilot’s watch, at least — yet impressive complication thrown in for good measure. Needless to say, we had to get our hands one one and take it for a whirl.
Let’s get two things out of the way right now: 1) this watch is expensive: $38,600; and 2) this watch is big. Zip code big. Once you wrap your brain around these two key points you’re ready to properly enjoy what is perhaps the ne plus ultra of modern pilot’s watches, as well as complete and utter overkill for anyone other than a die-hard watch nut. It also happens to be the ultimate expression of what it means to be an IWC. How so? Let’s step into the wayback machine, shall we?
Among the genres of watches that exist today, the pilot’s watch has as long and illustrious history as any of them. While the dive watch may be the most visible, thanks in no small part to the popularity of the ubiquitous Rolex Submariner, IWC was making watches for pilots as early as 1936, which pre-dates the Submariner by almost 20 years. While the very first pilot’s watch from IWC, the reference 436, bore little resemblance to the behemoth that you see here, the next version, the reference 431, most certainly did; at 55mm, it more than earned its nickname, “Grosse Fliegeruhr” (yes, that translates into “big pilot’s watch”).
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So, now, for the first time we see all the traditional elements in place: large, generously-lumed “propeller” hands, a triangle with dots at 12 o’clock and an oversize “onion” crown that’s easy to manipulate when wearing gloves (remember, early cockpits weren’t pressurized). These features, along with a hacking second hand and soft iron inner case to protect the movement from magnetic fields would become hallmarks of all future pilot’s watches from Schaffhausen. Later takes on the theme from brands like Breitling added more functionality like analog flight computers, etc., though at the expense of legibility. Even so, the IWC Big Pilot’s Watch remains the standard bearer for all high-end pilot’s watches are compared.
So, now we know that IWC makes pilot’s watches. Big pilot’s watches, and they’ve been doing this for a long time. What else qualifies the Top Gun Big Pilot’s Watch Perpetual Calendar (hence forth to be referred to as the ref. 5029) as the ultimate IWC? Well, in addition to the above, the ref. 5029 also expresses its inherent brand DNA with the choice of materials from which it is crafted; namely, ceramic and titanium, the use of which was pioneered in watches by IWC as far back as 1980. The 48mm diameter case is fashioned from zirconium oxide and has a hardness that rivals that of sapphire and diamond, which makes it extremely resistant to scratches and all but impervious to acids and corrosion. This material also lends the watch its trademark “stealth” appearance (all Top Gun models feature matte black ceramic cases). The case back and crown are made from grade 5 titanium, which is twice as strong and twice as light as steel. Other distinctive elements are the hard-wearing black textile strap — seriously, this thing is all but bulletproof — and yes, a somewhat cheesy enamel Top Gun logo under sapphire glass on the case back (shades of Maverick and Goose here).
This brings us to the white elephant in the living room. i.e. the magnificent caliber 51614 perpetual calendar movement, which was designed by living legend, former head designer and current and IWC technical ambassador Kurt Klaus. A perpetual calendar not only provides the wearer with the time and date, but also the day of the week, the month, and in the case of the calibre 51614, the year and phases of the moon as well. This complication’s real claim to fame, however is its ability to account for the differing amount of days in each month, as well as take into account leap years, with the end result being a watch that never needs to be reset to correct the date.
In fact, the calibre 51614 won’t require an adjustment until 2100, which will mark the first time in one hundred years that a leap year skips its four year cycle. The moonphase, with its patented double-hemisphere disc, won’t require an adjustment for an astonishing 577.5 years, at which point it will be exactly one day behind schedule, thus making it the most accurate moonphase in an automatic perpetual calendar.
Another ingenious aspect of the calibre 51614 is that it is adjusted entirely through the crown, which makes setting a breeze; most perpetual calendars are set via push-buttons dotted along the case and require tables to properly set the phase of the moon. The calibre 51614 also features a 7-day power reserve, which it inherited from the now iconic calibre 5000 movement in the base Big Pilot. That’s right, once fully wound, should you remove the watch from your wrist, it will continue running for up to one week without any loss of accuracy. We could go on about Breguet springs and Glucydur beryllium alloy balance wheels, but suffice to say, this is haute horology we’re talking about here. You get the picture.
Now, there are many who would argue that a complicated perpetual calendar movement with all its various subdials and windows has no place on a true pilot’s watch, and you know something, they’re probably right. However, the ref. 5029 isn’t about what’s right. It’s about making a statement, and let us tell you, on the wrist that’s exactly what it does. Sort of like Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition, no one expects this piece — i.e. a massive 48mm perpetual calendar in matte black that’s able to withstand sudden pressure drops and is water-resistant to 6 bar — and yet, here it is.
It’s a technological tour de force that showcases everything that’s great about IWC, from its military/aviation history, embrace of avant-garde materials and case-making acumen, to its mastery of horological complication and its deep-seated connection to home-grown watchmaking in its most basic and elemental form. It’s a watch looks both to the past and the future, perhaps at the expense of the present. Again, a perpetual calendar pilot’s watch? Preposterous! Yet once you a see it in person, all of a sudden it makes sense.
Is it for everyone? Hell no, and that’s exactly how it should be. It’s too big, too complicated and too expensive for mere earthbound mortals, but if you think you have what it takes to strap one of these bad boys on, then by all means, kick the tires, light the fires and take this baby straight into the Danger Zone!
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