Flieger Watches: A Brief History and 14 Modern Fliegers from Entry-Level to Luxury

Flieger Watches: A Brief History and 14 Modern Fliegers from Entry-Level to Luxury

“Flieger” is the German word for “flier” — contrary to what you may have read elsewhere, it’s not the direct translation of “pilot” (that would actually be “pilot”) — and if you’re a traveler visiting Germany, it’s a helpful word to know, as it helps to understand other related terms: German airlines call their flights “flugs” and Germany calls its airports “flughafens.” Flieger is also the term that’s been widely adopted as shorthand for a specific style of pilot’s watch — one that traces its origins to World War II and which is still popular among an avid group of watch enthusiasts today.

Flieger watches trace their origins to a type of timekeeper developed in the 1930s for German military aviators called the B-Uhr, short for Beobachtungs-Uhren, which translates to “observation watches.” B-Uhr watches, the first of which were property of the German government rather than the Luftwaffe pilots who wore them, adhered to strict specifications. Their cases were enormous for a wrist-borne watch at the time, at 55mm in diameter, and they accordingly housed movements that were originally made for pocket watches. These movements all incorporated the mission-critical hacking seconds function and were protected from magnetism by soft iron inner cages to ensure their functionality in an airplane cockpit. The dials were designed to be ultra-readable, with large white Arabic numerals on an expansive black background and flame-blued, luminous-treated sword hands. The bulbous “onion” crowns were intended for easy gripping by hands wearing heavy flight gloves and the watches were secured by rivets to thick leather straps that were long enough and sturdy enough to be worn over those gloves.

A. Lange & Söhne B-Uhr pilot watch

The stark, practical designs of the B-Uhren were similar to those of the so-called Dirty Dozen, the now-legendary series of field watches made for the British armed forces during that same era, and like those watches, the government contracts to make them were granted to only a handful of companies. In the B-Uhren’s case, there were only five, four German and one Swiss. The German manufacturers were Laco, Stowa, Wempe, and a watchmaker now known much more for high-luxury timepieces than tool watches, A. Lange & Söhne (example above). The single Swiss maker was the International Watch Company, or IWC, which supplied watches to both the Axis and Allies as per Switzerland’s neutral status during the war, and which contributed perhaps the most influential and recognizable flieger timepiece, the famed Big Pilot’s Watch (below).

IWC Big Pilot's Watch original 1940 

The original B-Uhren were built to what were dubbed “Type A” specifications, with an orientation triangle surrounded by two dots at the 12 o’clock position and a single chapter ring on the outside edge. The “Type B” models that followed in 1941 added a layer of utility with an outer scale (0-60 graduated into five-minute increments) for minutes and seconds and an inner 1-12 ring for hours. Regardless of which of the five producers made them, the cases all had engraved identification numbers beginning with “FL” for “Flieger,” hence the term that came to define these pilots’ watches as a genre. Flieger watches ebbed and flowed in mainstream popularity in the postwar years, but the style came roaring back around the turn of the 20th Century, led by IWC’s revival of its fondly remembered Mark XII model and fueled by the renaissance of the traditional mechanical watch after decades of market dominance by quartz and digital timepieces. Here are 14 modern flieger watches, starting at under $300; several are somewhat hard to find in the United States (as indicated by their price in euros or Swiss francs), but if you’re a diehard fan of this classic, military style of watch, you’ll likely find them to be worth the search.

Orient RA-AC0H03B10A

Orient pilot watch

Price: $265, Case Size: 42.4mm, Thickness: 11.6mm, Lug to Lug: 49.5mm, Lug Width: 22mm, Crystal: Mineral, Water Resistance: 100 meters, Movement: Automatic F6722

Japan-based Orient is renowned for offering watch enthusiasts bang for the buck, and its RA-AC0H series of vintage-style pilots’ watches delivers flieger flair with a mechanical movement for under $300. The watch has a sizeable 42.4mm case (with a relatively slim profile) and a "Type B"-style dial with 60-minute outer ring and 12-hour inner ring, topped by the familiar pilot’s triangle at 12 o’clock. The large, printed Arabic numerals are luminous-treated and the inner scale is punctuated at 3 o’clock by a discreet date window. The self-winding F6722 movement inside the matte-finished case is a reliable workhorse, with a 21,600-vph frequency and a 40-hour power reserve, adding to this watch’s enticing value proposition.

Seiko 5 Sports SRPH29

Seiko 5 Sports SRPH29

Price: $295, Case Size: 39.4mm, Thickness: 13.2mm, Lug to Lug: 48.1mm, Lug Width: 20mm, Crystal: Hardlex, Water Resistance: 100 meters, Movement: Automatic 4R36

Seiko’s 5 Sports line takes its cues from a classic model from 1963, the Seiko 5 Sportsmatic, whose five named attributes include automatic movements, day/date displays in a single window, water resistance, a recessed crown at 4 o’clock, and a case made of durable materials. Probably best known for its stylish and affordable divers’ watches, the collection speaks to military mavens and aviation enthusiasts with the SRPH29 model, which straddles the line between a flieger and a field watch (two genres that are historically linked) with its 60-minute/12-hour dial combo, wide syringe hands, and 12 o’clock orientation triangle. For just under $300, Seiko offers a 100-meter water resistant steel case and the in-house, automatic 4R36 caliber, which packs a 41-hour power reserve and which can be admired behind a clear caseback.

Citizen Eco-Drive Avion

Citizen Eco-Drive Avion

Price: $250, Case Size: 45mm, Thickness: 12mm, Lug Width: 22mm, Crystal: Mineral, Water Resistance: 100 meters, Movement: Citizen Eco-Drive Caliber J810

Rounding out our trifecta of Japanese-made fliegers is the Avion model from Citizen, which ups the ante on military functionality with not one, not two, but three scales: an outer 60-minute track, an inner 24-hour ring and a 12-hour ring sandwiched between them. A bright white orientation triangle takes pride of place at 12 o’clock and the date display at 3 o’clock is executed in the classical triple-date style of early aviation watches. Aesthetic emphasis is placed on the wide, luminous-coated hour hand, which is distinct in its size and style from the thinner minute hand. The watch contains a Citizen Eco-Drive movement, whose rechargeable battery draws its energy from any light source, running more than six months on a single charge.

Laco Pilot’s Watch Basic Augsburg

Laco Pilot Basic AugsburgPrice: $410, Case Size: 39mm, Thickness: 11.55mm, Lug Width: 18mm, Lug to Lug: 46.5mm, Water Resistance: 50m, Crystal: Sapphire, Movement: Automatic Laco 21 (Miyota 821 base)

Based in Pforzheim, Laco (originally named “Lacher & Co.” after co-founder Frieda Lacher) was founded in 1920 and was one of the five watch manufacturers that made watches for the German air force during World War II. Today’s Laco collection pays tribute to those minimalist vintage aviation watches in their design, dimensions, and period-appropriate details. The Augsburg model featured here is a quintessential 1940s pilot’s watch, with big Arabic numerals, sword-shaped hour and minute hands and a long, thin, central seconds hand, all doused with C3 SuperLumiNova; a classical orientation triangle with two dots at the top of the dial; a matte steel case with a large fluted onion crown; and a sturdy brown calf-leather strap with contrast stitching and old-school rivets. The self-winding movement inside the case is a Laco-modified Miyota caliber from Japan.

Luminox P-38 Lightning

Luminox P-38 LightningPrice: $595, Case Size: 40mm, Thickness: 14mm, Lug to Lug: 49mm, Lug Width: 22mm, Water Resistance: 100m, Crystal: Sapphire, Movement: Quartz Ronda Caliber 515.24H

One of the youngest brands on this list (it was founded in 1989), Luminox takes its name from a portmanteau of the Latin words, “Lumi” for light and “Nox” for night, an indicator of the Swiss brand’s prioritization of high luminescence and readability in its high-performance tool watches, which are famously worn by Navy SEALs and other military units. The P-38 Lightning stands out among Luminox’s mostly complex-looking line of aviation-inspired watches with its classic, “B-Uhr”-style dial, whose thick Arabic hour markers and 12 o’clock triangle are enhanced with micro-tubes filled with tritium, a substance that offers an intense, long-lasting glow in the dark without the need for charging with light during the daytime. The hour and minute hand, also tritium-treated, are joined by a smaller, arrow-pointed GMT hand that indicates a second time zone on an inner 24-hour circle. 

Bulova A-15 Pilot 

Bulova A-15 Pilot's Watch

Price: $695, Case Size: 42mm, Lug Width: 20mm, Water Resistance: 30m, Crystal: Sapphire, Movement: Automatic Miyota 82S6

Bulova is a brand with roots in the USA and a history of making watches for the nation’s military units. A modern reissue of a watch ordered for American pilots during World War II, the Bulova A-15 Pilot has a more complex, multifunctional look than many of its wartime contemporaries, with two additional crowns to operate two inner rotating disks: the crown at 2 o’clock moves the outer minutes scale, which can be used to track elapsed time from a set point in the manner of a diver’s bezel, while the crown at 4 o’clock rotates the inner 24-hour disk that can track the time in an additional time zone. Despite the dial’s complexity, it adheres to the many of the classic flieger elements, including high-contrast Arabic numerals on a black dial, a big, fluted crown, and a robust steel case on a leather strap. The automatic Japanese Miyota movement beats inside.

Archimede Pilot 39

Archimede Pilot watch

Price: 880 euros, Case Size: 39mm, Thickness: 9.8mm, Lug to Lug: 45mm, Lug Width: 22mm, Crystal: Hardlex, Water Resistance: 100 meters, Movement: Automatic ETA 2824-2

The Archimede brand has been around only since 2003, but Ickler, the family-owned firm that operates it, traces its ancestry all the way back to 1924. Pforzheim-based Ickler makes cases for various watch manufacturers, and Archimede is its in-house brand, notable for its vintage-influenced designs and monobloc “Ickler cases.” The Pilot 39 model is offered with the Archimede logo or, in a more period-appropriate version of the historic German aviator watches it emulates, without one; there’s even a version for left-handers, with the crown on the left hand side. The 39mm case, in stainless steel or bronze, sports a finely brushed finish. The matte black dial has prominent, high-contrast Arabic numerals, the pilot’s triangle with two dots at 12, and long, diamond-shaped hands. The case and the inspiration are German, but the movement inside is Swiss: namely, the ubiquitous and reliable ETA 2824-2, visible behind a sapphire caseback.

Stowa Flieger Classic 40

Stowa Klassik Pilot's Watch

Price: 1,250 euros, Case Size: 40mm, Thickness: 10.2mm, Lug to Lug: 48.6mm, Lug Width: 20mm, Water Resistance: 50m, Crystal: Sapphire, Movement: Automatic Sellita Caliber SW 200

Germany’s Stowa, founded in 1927 and deriving its name from an inverted portmanteau of its founder Walter Storz’s first and last names, was another of the WWII-era firms that built wristwatches for pilots. Early Stowa watches, whose cases could be as large as 55m, upheld the now-familiar flieger aesthetic, with big luminous Arabic numerals on a black dial, blued steel hands, and an inverted triangle at 12 o’clock flanked by two dots. “Baumuster A” models had a simple minute track around the 12 hour numerals; these were followed by “Baumuster B” series, with a 60-minute outer scale and 12-hour inner scale. Stowa still offers both styles today, albeit in a more contemporary case size of 40mm and containing modern Swiss-made movements, originally from ETA, more recently from Sellita; both automatic and manually wound versions are available. The matte black "Type A" dial of the Flieger Classic 40 is also offered in several executions, including the classic, historically appropriate design that eschews the Stowa brand logo. The sturdy, riveted leather strap completes the historical picture. 

Tutima Flieger Slate Grey

Tutima Flieger Slate GreyPrice: $1,650, Case Size: 41mm, Thickness: 13mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 100m, Movement: Automatic Tutima Caliber 330

The Tutima Flieger, which takes cues from the German manufacturer’s WWII-era military pilot’s watches, makes a handsome monochromatic statement with its slate-gray dial and tone-on-tone Horween leather strap. The 41mm stainless steel case frames the degradé-effect dial that radiates from light grey at its center to nearly black at its periphery. The triangle with two dots at the 12 o’clock position, luminous-coated along with the hands and indexes, identifies this watch’s heritage and its red central seconds hand provides an elegant contrast that helps ensure it can transition seamlessly from the cockpit to the boardroom. Tutima uses the Swiss automatic ETA 2386 as the base for the modified Tutima Caliber 330, which maintains a 42-hour power reserve.

Sinn 856 B-Uhr

Sinn 856 B-Uhr

Price: $1,780, Case Size: 40mm, Thickness: 11mm, Lug Width: 20mm, Water Resistance: 200m, Crystal: Sapphire, Movement: Automatic Sellita SW300-1

German watchmaker Sinn is known for tough, purpose-built timepieces and developing its own in-house technologies and processes to produce them. Many of these innovations are on display in the 856 B-Uhr model, which evokes the early 1940s models for which it’s aptly named. The 40mm steel case is extra-hardened with Sinn’s proprietary Tegiment process; the historically influenced dial (with a 60-minute track that combines Arabic numerals and bar indexes, plus an inner 12-hour ring) is protected under a sapphire crystal enhanced against fogging by the manufacturer’s Ar-Dehumidifying system; and the movement, a heavily modified Swiss Sellita automatic, is shielded from magnetic interference up to 80,000 A/m thanks to the case’s soft-iron inner-core structure. The 856 B-Uhr can be ordered with either a vintage-look two-layer leather strap or a steel bracelet with the same bead-blasted finish as the case for a more modern look. 

Fortis Flieger F-41 Midnight Blue

Fortis Flieger Midnight Blue

Price: CHF 1,950 Case Size: 41mm, Thickness: 12.5mm, Lug Width: 21mm, Water Resistance: 200m, Crystal: Sapphire, Movement: Automatic Fortis UW-30 (Sellita SW200-1 base)

Founded in Grenchen, Switzerland, in 1912, Fortis is a longtime supplier of watches to the Swiss air force and several of the nation’s aerobatics teams. The brand introduced its historically influenced (yet still very contemporary) Flieger series in 1987, which brings the 1940s aesthetic into the modern era with chronographs and GMT versions as well as the Midnight Blue time-and-date model featured here. Its 41mm case is made of recycled stainless steel and resists up to 200 meters of water pressure. Adding a hint of extra functionality to its pilot-style dial is a coin-edged bidirectional rotating bezel with a 12-hour scale that can be used either for timing an event or tracking a second time zone. The fluorescent orange “Synchroline” sector between 11 and 1 o’clock on the minute track, one of several high-contrast orange details, is an extra tool for pilots flying in formation with a squadron to synchronize their maneuvers.

Wempe Chronometerwerke Automatic Aviator Watch

Wempe Automatic Pilot Watch

Price: $6,300, Case Size: 41mm, Thickness: 11.7mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 30m, Movement: Automatic Wempe Caliber CW4

During World War II, Wempe, the Hamburg-based watchmaker and jeweler, was pressed into service by Germany’s Ministry of Aviation as a producer of military equipment, including large wrist instruments for pilots. Wempe resumed its retail business after the war, and in 2005 bought the derelict Glashütte Observatory, transforming it into an in-house watchmaking center. One year later came the Chronometerwerke line of watches with Wempe’s own chronometer-tested movements, including this retro-designed pilots’ watch, limited to 100 pieces, based on those produced during the wartime era. The black PVD-coated case and sober black “B-Uhr” dial combine for a sleek monochromatic look. The strap is brown calfskin leather with vintage-style stitching. Ticking behind a sapphire exhibition back, Wempe’s automatic CW 4 movement boasts a 90-hour power reserve.

IWC Big Pilot’s Watch 43

IWC Big Pilot's Watch

Price: $8,650, Case Size: 43mm, Case Height: 13.6mm, Lug to Lug: 52mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 100 meters, Movement: IWC Automatic Caliber 82100

IWC’s first Big Pilot’s watch, made for the German Air Force in 1940, basically defined the look of a classic military aviation watch and its return to the modern lineup in 2002 kicked off an entire family of Pilot’s timepieces that has taken center stage in the brand’s portfolio. In 2021, IWC engaged enthusiasts who've clamored for the Big Pilot’s style while lamenting its massive proportions (46mm, still smaller than the 53mm original) with the release of the Big Pilot 43, which not only offers a more wearable 43mm case size but also a quick-change construction that allows the wearer to switch easily between strap and bracelet. The dial is also evocative of the historical model’s utilitarian simplicity, sporting large, luminous Arabic numerals, sword hands, and the hallmark orientation triangle at 12 o’clock. The movement, automatic Caliber 82100, features IWC’s highly efficient Pellaton winding system and carries a 60-hour power reserve. In another departure from previous Big Pilots, the BP 43’s movement is also on display behind a sapphire exhibition caseback. 

IWC Pilot’s Watch Mark XX

IWC Pilot's Watch Mark XX

Price: $5,250, Case Size: 40mm, Thickness: 10.9mm, Lug to Lug: 49mm, Lug Width: 20mm, Water Resistance: 100m, Crystal: Sapphire, Movement: Automatic IWC 32111

IWC’s historical footprint in the field of aviation watches goes beyond the one established in World War II with the Big Pilot. In 1948, Britain’s RAF commissioned from the Swiss maker a special timepiece for its members, built to exacting specifications, called the Mark 11. Notable for its smaller dimensions, optimum legibility, and antimagnetic case, the Mark 11 remained standard issue for the RAF and other military aviation squads for decades. The Mark XX, introduced to the civilian market by IWC in 2022, is the modern successor to that historical trendsetter. It features a modest yet substantial case diameter of 40mm and a sizable screw-down crown. The steel case’s finish is mostly matte brushed, and the dial (in either black or sunray blue) has the historical orientation triangle at 12 o’clock along with a ring of big, luminous Arabic hour numerals. Inside, behind a solid caseback, is IWC’s in-house automatic Caliber 32111, among whose impressive attributes are a 120-hour power reserve.

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