Dogfight | Time on their hands

April 1, 2012

Editor at Large Tom Horne and Senior Editor Dave Hirschman have a lot of things in common: lots of ratings, lots of experience in lots of airplane models—and lots of opinions (as well as similar haircuts). We last turned them loose on the topic of the perfect training aircraft (see “ Dogfight: The Perfect Trainer,” January 2012 AOPA Pilot) and the response to two different schools of thought on this topic garnered interesting opinions from a large number of readers. So we launch them into another “Dogfight”—we hope you’ll enjoy these two sometimes tongue-in-cheek takes on a topic, and keep those cards and letters coming. —Ed.

Go analog—and in style

Why self-winding analog pilot watches are my favorite

Editor at Large Thomas A. Horne By Thomas A. Horne >

Over the past decades I’ve had a number of wristwatches. Many were cheapo digital models that cost $20 to $50. I always found them characterless and needlessly complex. Sure, they had lots of features and functions, but some of them were difficult to program and had so many buttons that it was easy to call up a display you didn’t want—and then it was difficult to find the way back to the original display. Sometimes I’d try one mode, only to find myself looking at a set of endlessly flashing digits. Most of the functions I didn’t need or want. The odd thing was that I kept losing these small rectangular slabs of plastic. Maybe this was subconscious. It’s hard to get worked up over something that always seems to be a giveaway.

So I gravitated toward analog-display watches. I want to see hour, minute, and second hands. In a glance you can tell time—be it current, elapsed, or time to go. Since I became a pilot, 36 years ago, I never went back to pure digital watches.

Analog watches aren’t all alike, of course. Of my current low-to-medium-priced watch collection, there’s a genuine Swiss Army watch ($89); an old day/date Seiko ($125); and a beat-up $40 Casio. As I became more involved in aviation, I was drawn to analog watches aimed at pilots. First I bought a Heuer that had E6B functions and a 12-hour timer. Then I bought a Glycine watch with a 24-hour internal face and another rotating 24-hour bezel; this meant I could keep better track of Zulu and local time zones with a single look. All are battery powered, which is a kind of curse. Some day those batteries will die, and I’ll be left with the chore of finding replacements and then installing them. If you want the watch to remain water-resistant or waterproof, that means a trip to a shop that can pull off the job—for a price, of course. Many times, that price is more than the watch is worth.

Recently I bought what I think is a classic among pilot watches: a Breitling Navitimer. I like its looks, and like that it’s a self-winding watch—no battery worries. I also like its 12-hour timer and other functions. Sure, every five years or so it’ll need a cleaning (this costs around $500), but you can say the same about Rolexes, or the self- or hand-winding Tutima pilot watches, and others of the same caliber. But these are all great watches. I appreciate their histories, admire their designs, and like the traditions these lines preserve. Are they as atomic-accurate as a $49.95 digital horror at Walmart? Probably not, but their accuracies are within a minute a week, based on my experience. I synchronize my watches to a standard source every few days.

To me, these timepieces are much more than mere watches—and not just because I enjoy them for aesthetic reasons. The Swiss Army watch was bought at a booth during my first pilgrimage to Oshkosh, and it was made before the Wenger firm took over the brand. After that, the words “Swiss Army” were no longer printed on the watch face. The day/date Seiko was bought in Paris when my digital watch’s battery died. Its days are in French. When I look at it I think of the first of many visits I made to the Robin Aircraft factory in Dijon. I bought my Heuer from Sporty’s Pilot Shop, in 1985 for $350. This was before the Heuer brand became Tag-Heuer, so it is becoming rarer and rarer. I look at it and think of the 28-plus trans-Atlantic crossings it has timed, how many tank switchings it nudged me to make, and how I surpassed its 12-hour timer limit in a Piper Seminole—on a 12+45 nonstop leg one winter night, from St. Johns to Guernsey. The battery died once, and moisture got inside. Replacing the battery, drying it, and resealing the watch set me back $1,200. I paid it. What was I going to do—throw it away?

Nowadays I alternate between the Heuer and the Navitimer—and sometimes I’ll also wear the Glycine. Wearing two watches gets the wisecracks, but at least I have Zulu time straight! And yes, I know that Breitling’s Navitimer World, and most Rolexes and other über-watches, have separate Zulu-time hands.

Some day, when I head west, I’ll leave these watches to my wife and son, and hope that they’ll share in their enjoyment.

Email the author at [email protected].

On time, but lost

I'll take the Timex

Senior Editor Dave HirschmanBy Dave Hirschman

Jeweled, diamond-encrusted pilot watches and other extravagant accessories are warning signs that the fliers wearing them may have lost their way.

Sure, it’s a free country, and pilots (as well as hip-hop artists) can display as much bling as they please.

But whenever I see a pilot wearing a multi-thousand-dollar wristband that doesn’t tell time any better than a cheap Casio, I can’t help thinking about the more-substantive, less-visible aviation experiences that such a pilot might be missing. An advanced rating? Adventures powered by a year’s supply of avgas? A seaplane, glider, or multiengine rating? The list is endless.

Maybe the wearer has done all those things and still has enough money left to burn a wet mule. But I doubt it, since members of that 1-percent club we hear so much about tend to be more circumspect.

Pilot bling is an upscale holdover from those coveted status symbols of youth whose attraction always seems, strangely, to fade at the very moment a person gains admission to the club. A varsity letterman’s jacket was once an object of great desire for me. But by the time I was actually qualified to wear one, it had lost its allure. I promised myself a leather flying jacket when I passed a particular checkride. But once it was over, so was my fondness for the cowhide. My younger brother wanted to earn a Navy flight jacket. But once he had done the hard work and made the required sacrifices, the jacket with the F/A-18 Hornet patches was quickly relegated to a hall closet, and then an attic. It will make a nice keepsake for his kids someday.

It’s the journey that counts, not the symbols. Anyone who’s made a long march knows that implicitly.

I was at the hangar recently when a guy stopped his Mercedes and asked about my airplane (a single-seat biplane). I gave him my most convincing spiel about how magical flying can be and pointed out that the flight school on the airfield would be happy to take him for an intro flight that very day. But he drove away, saying he couldn’t dream of flying or airplane ownership because it’s so expensive—even though the car he was sitting in cost more than twice as much as the diminutive airplane that caught his eye.

It’s all about priorities. And yes, I drive a 10-year-old Chrysler that’s an embarrassment to my teenage daughter because, as I’ve explained to her many times, cars are only good for driving to airports. A crappy car and a cool airplane (and they’re all cool airplanes!) beat a new car and no airplane any day.

Even if I won the lottery tomorrow—and I won’t because I don’t play—I’d stick with my beat-up Timex. My watch doesn’t cost much, tells time accurately, displays Zulu time at the touch of a single button, has a stopwatch (with splits that are handy in the air for clocking fuel tank usage), an alarm for backing up hotel wake-up calls, and it’s waterproof to 100 meters.

Can a Swiss status symbol do all that?

Sure, the batteries in my watch eventually wear out and aren’t easy to replace. But this one has lasted six years, and I think it’s good for at least another four. (My last one survived 10 years with two wristband replacements.) Total cost of ownership: about five bucks a year.

Maybe we’ve come to the point that all watches are obsolete since the cell phones most of us carry also display the time of day. But I still like having a watch on my left wrist and knowing I can find useful information there at a glance.

Some connoisseurs appreciate the finest things in life, and a beautifully crafted, precisely built piece of jewelry that tells time certainly qualifies. My own guilty pleasures are pretty much limited to a few Snap-On tools and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

Then, of course, there’s the actual act of flying. Getting up there in the sky and joining the tumbling mirth is surely the guiltiest pleasure of all.

And that’s why I’m so suspicious of pilots who flaunt their pricey accessories: They seem to prefer the trappings of flight to flight itself.

If that’s the case, they’re hopelessly lost—even if they know exactly what time it is.

Email the author at [email protected].