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Memorial Day Special: The Best Pilot’s Watches of All Time

By Donato Andrioli
Top Gun Pilots Watches

In honor of Memorial Day, we’re taking to the skies and exploring the most amazing pilot’s watches of all time. Originally the companions of pilots and military personnel, today many discerning watch fans also favor these iconic timepieces for their history and presence in movies like “Top Gun.” Fasten your seatbelt!

Porsche Design Orfina
Porsche Design Orfina: The actual watch worn by Tom Cruise in “Top Gun”

IWC Top Gun: A Hollywood Story

IWC’s association with pilot’s watches is nearly unrivaled, so it comes as no surprise that they offer an entire Top Gun collection. One of the most popular models is the Pilot Chronograph Top Gun IW389101. The company specially designed this chronograph to meet the needs of fighter pilots. It can handle twisting aerial maneuvers with high acceleration forces just as well as lengthy stints on aircraft carriers. Not even sudden drops in pressure can deform the sapphire crystal, and the internal soft-iron case protects the movement from the effects of magnetic fields. Finally, the use of ceramic and titanium for the case means this watch is corrosion-resistant.

Thanks to the in-house caliber 69380, easy-to-read matte black dial, and day and date displays, this is the perfect watch for pilots and service members (and those aspiring to become one). At 44 mm in diameter, this pilot’s watch is already on the larger side; however, it is by no means the largest model in the collection. The Top Gun IW379901 outdoes its sister model with its 46-mm case. If these Top Gun chronographs are too hefty for you, you may prefer something like the Top Gun 326901. This three-hand edition boasts the same advantages as the larger versions but is a better choice for smaller wrists at 41 mm in diameter and 11.4 mm thick.

What did Tom Cruise actually wear in Top Gun?

Like me, you may have once thought that IWC’s Top Gun collection started as a creative marketing campaign for the movie. After all, it shares its name with the film and bears the same iconic logo on its case back. However, the watch and the cult classic only have an indirect relationship. IWC released the Top Gun collection in 2007, long after the debut of the first film. In fact, the manufacturer actually developed the watch for the Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program (a.k.a. “TOPGUN”). As you may have guessed, this training program served as the inspiration for the 1986 movie, which chose the program’s nickname as its title and made this pilot’s school a household name. In the film itself, Tom Cruise actually wears a Porsche Design Orfina with a Lemania 5100 movement.

IWC IW389101
The Top Gun Chronograph IW389101 can survive extreme acceleration forces.

Breitling: A Leader Among Pilot’s Watches

IWC isn’t the only watch brand to dedicate itself to aviation. In fact, Breitling has perhaps the strongest relationship with flight of any luxury watch manufacturer. Legendary models like the Breitling Colt, Aviator 8, and other high-precision and extremely robust timepieces demonstrate the brand’s impressive aviation expertise.

While the aforementioned models deserve plenty of praise, you probably have a different Breitling pilot’s watch in mind: the Navitimer. This timepiece premiered in 1952 as an evolution of the Breitling Chronomat. Before the Navitimer’s introduction, the Chronomat had long been the watch of choice for the U.S. Air Force. However, the Navitimer is no simple chronograph: As its name implies, it is also a navigation tool. Its complex bidirectional bezel is actually a slide rule, enabling the wearer to make complicated calculations, such as fuel consumption, rates of climb and descent, and average speed. This was especially crucial for pilots in the days before onboard flight computers. Now nearly 70 years after its debut, the Navitimer’s bezel is more about historical accuracy than practicality.

Even so, it’s impossible to imagine the Navitimer without this iconic feature. While few people probably use the slide rule nowadays, the watch’s tool-like aesthetic makes it a great accessory for all occasions. You don’t have to be a fighter pilot to enjoy a Navitimer. Breitling offers this legendary timepiece in several sizes and on various bands, opening it up to a wider audience. Even if it didn’t appear in “Top Gun,” the Navitimer remains one of the most famous pilot’s watches of all time.

Breitling Navitimer 1b101
Perhaps the most famous pilot’s watch of all time: the Breitling Navitimer

Rolex: The $2-Million Pilot’s Watch

Do you have as much trouble imagining a soldier or fighter pilot wearing a Sky-Dweller or Air-King as I do? And yet, they firmly belong to the category of “aviation” watches. However, it’s another Rolex pilot’s watch that’s been taking the watch world by storm since its 1954 debut: the GMT-Master, particularly the GMT-Master II. The Swiss brand initially crafted this timepiece for commercial pilots, enabling them to tell the time in two time zones simultaneously using the bidirectional bezel. The public quickly became enamored with the model, especially those who frequently travel between time zones.

NASA and Air Force pilots have also turned to the GMT-Master for its practical complication. The GMT-Master has even made it to Hollywood, appearing on Marlon Brando’s wrist when he played Colonel Kurtz in the epic war movie Apocalypse Now. In fact, as the story goes, Brando wore his personal GMT-Master ref. 1675 from 1972 in the film. However, he removed its blue and red Pepsi bezel so it would be less conspicuous. That exact watch went up for auction in 2019 and sold for almost $2 million.

The Rolex GMT-Master has been among the world’s most famous pilot’s watches since 1954.

Val Kilmer, who plays Iceman in Top Gun, apparently wore his GMT-Master on set, though it didn’t make it into the movie. However, a Rolex does appear in Top Gun – if only by accident. In one of the last action sequences, you can spot Maverick (Cruise) wearing a Submariner ref. 5513 despite the character sporting an Orfina throughout the rest of the movie. While this diving watch looks great on the wrist, it’s rather out of its depth as a pilot’s watch.

The Wide World of Pilot’s Watches

The world of pilot’s watches is so vast that we could spend days exploring its most important brands and models. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention Sinn, Fortis, or Tutima, three brands that are experts in the pilot’s watch field. The Omega Speedmaster is also an important timepiece to mention because despite being developed as a racing chronograph, it has become an aerospace darling for its key role in NASA’s manned space missions. Finally, with Top Gun 2 set to premiere in November 2021, I, for one, will be taking a very close look at the actors’ wrists as they take flight!

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About the Author

Donato Andrioli

With the purchase of my Tudor Black Bay 41, I discovered a passion for mechanical watches. I am particularly drawn to iconic watches with long and exciting histories.

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