In a galaxy not that far away, the average diameter of a man’s watch was most of the time starting with a 3. There were a few exceptions of course, with ultra-focused, professional tools measuring more than 40mm. But the norm wasn’t the same as today, where a 42mm time-only watch seems to be accepted – well, not for everybody. And while watches have grown drastically, and the tastes followed suit, there’s something truly special when wearing a vintage chronograph that measures 36mm. Vintage-inspired watches these days often combine retro styling with modern proportions. It seems that few have the audacity to go full vintage, proportions included. But Blancpain has done it, with a new iteration of its Air Command Flyback Chronograph. Because now, next to the classic 42.50mm, you’ll get the option for a 36mm version that might be the perfect watch for a certain part of the collecting community… Me included.
I have to be a bit subjective here and give an opinion that is personal. Since there are two size options available for the Blancpain Air Command, it will simplify the choices here. I do understand why some men, with larger wrists or more stature, want a watch with a 40mm plus diameter. I do understand that a man with a 19cm wrist doesn’t want to wear a 36mm watch. It used to be the norm in the 1960s or even the 1980s, but mentalities and tastes have evolved and for these men, the 42mm Air Command will be a rather fitting option. No doubt. But I, personally have a 16.5cm and when wearing a 42mm watch with rather elongated lugs, it feels like the watch is wearing me, not that I’m wearing the watch. Visually, the watch sits on top of my wrist instead of rolling around it, as it should. And it’s not only about the visual effect but also about the comfort. It often can feel oversized and thus unbalanced.
One of my all-time favourite (and personal) watches is the Rolex Explorer 14270, a 36mm watch that to me looks absolutely perfect in terms of proportions. It sits greatly on my wrist, to the point that I’m forgetting that I wear a watch. In the same vein, I particularly love my Breguet Type XX 3800st, a chronograph that has some presence on the wrist, yet measures only 39mm. Our own Montre de Souscritpion 1, a watch in which I’ve involves personally a lot, has a 38.5mm case but also a rather short L2L measurement. I have a thing for compactly-sized chronographs and this combination of small diameter with a certain height has never disturbed me. Again, it’s really personal and down to everyone’s tastes.
Now, when Blancpain released in 2019 the first edition of its Air Command, it truly amazed me visually. The look, the pilot’s inspiration, the story behind it, the faithfulness of the design and the impressive movement inside. It had it all… Until I put it on my wrist and realised; it felt too big for me. And I know that Blancpain went legit, even with the size, since the original late-1950s was indeed a fairly big watch – at about 42mm. This feeling didn’t really change when the watch was later released in titanium. It did improve the comfort a bit, with a lighter case, but still, the case felt too big for me.
Now, in 2022, Blancpain launches a 36.2mm edition of the Air Command Flyback Chronograph. And I know it isn’t respectful of the original watch. I know some will tell that this is a watch made for a feminine audience (it is, at least partially, but not only). I know many will consider this watch too small. And I personally don’t really care; this is just a watch that rocks (for me).
Let’s talk about the watch… The new Blancpain Air Command Flyback Chronograph 36mm is basically a downsized version of the larger edition released last year. Visually speaking, there’s not much differentiating between the two models and it’s only a matter of details to distinguish them, apart from the case diameter and a different movement.
The inspiration is the same, that of an elusive watch of the 1950s made by Blancpain. The brand, which had already won over the American Navy with its Fifty Fathoms diver’s watch, drew inspiration from it to develop a chronograph for the United States Air Force. This timepiece was offered to American military pilots through the distributor Allen V. Tornek, for whom Blancpain is thought to have created a dozen watches as prototypes. According to Phillips Watches, “there is no official documentation about this model and scholars are of the opinion that it was never commercialized or produced in series” and “no orders were placed and the Air Command project was not pursued”.
The recreation of the Air Command, whether the 42.5mm steel limited edition of 2019, the 42.5mm titanium or gold versions of 2021 or this new compact titanium or gold model, is extremely faithful in terms of design, yet not regarding the materials and the execution. The design respects the original watch, with a nicely designed watch topped by a pilot’s bezel and an ultra-domed crystal, and a dial with Arabic numerals and a bi-compax layout.
For the new edition, which is advertised by Blancpain as a unisex model, the case has been reduced to 36.2mm and a surprisingly thin height of 11.50mm – which is really pleasant considering the construction of the case and the automatic movement inside. And with a 43mm measurement from one lug to another, no doubt it will fit nicely all wrists. As with the bigger brother, the watch is available either in 18k red gold or in grade 23 titanium, a particularly resistant alloy mostly used in the medical industry – more details here. The case, with a 30m water-resistant (I personally don’t care, it’s a pilot’s chronograph and I would never put it underwater anyway) is finished with alternating brushed and polished surfaces and classical pilot’s crown/pushers.
Again, in line with the larger version of the watch, the case is framed by a bi-directional rotating bezel, equipped with fine fluting on the periphery and with a blue, glossy ceramic insert. The latter, considering the vocation of the watch, has a 60-minute countdown bezel and all markings are executed in Super-LumiNova. On top of the watch is a box-shaped sapphire crystal, which doesn’t have the same charm as a period-correct plexiglass but still adds a retro touch to this compact Air Command Flyback Chronograph 36mm. And yes, looking at this watch, you’ll hardly find differences between the 42mm and the 36mm, except if you have them side by side, or see them worn on the wrist.
As said, and again just like the large version, the 36mm Air Command has been released in two editions, the main difference being the material used for the case. Other than this and the matching colour of the hands, both watches are entirely identical. The dial is thus dark blue, with a sunray-brushed pattern and retains the same overall layout as the original model. Large Arabic and luminous numerals, classic straight hands also with SLN and two counters, 30-minute and 12-hour, but no running seconds – which can be disturbing at first. Despite the smaller case, the dial retains elegant spacing between the counters as well as the tachymeter scale on the periphery. And, something rare enough to be mentioned, the seconds track on the periphery actually matches the frequency of the movement – and that for the 42mm and the 36mm, even though both run at different paces.
As a result of the downsizing strategy, Blancpain had to change the movement – the Calibre F388B found inside the 42.5mm is a fairly large movement, and also a rather thick one, which would have compromised the balance of the case and would not have been possible anyway, due to the wide spacing of the counters. As such, we now have the calibre F188, still an integrated chronograph movement made in-house, equipped with a column wheel and a flyback function. It’s a fine engine overall, with a crisp operation of the pushers. Yet, it doesn’t retain the 5Hz frequency of the larger version, and the 40h power is on the short side.
As said, I loved the design and spirit of the original Air Command – mostly the black dial limited edition, but the blue titanium version of 2021 is also a highly appealing model. Yet, there was something off when trying the watch. Even though the design was good and balanced – understand here the fact that the diameter was greatly managed considering the design – the watch felt too large for my wrist. I’m sure a man with a 19cm wrist will be perfectly fine with it, but not me and my 16.5cm wrist.
Now, there’s this 36mm Blancpain Air Command and it truly does it for me. It doesn’t feel visually packed or cramped, as if there was too much going on in a too-small area. It feels perfectly balanced and thanks to the new movement and the downsizing of all the elements of the dial and the case, the overall look has been greatly preserved. And then there’s the sensation of having a watch that sits around the wrist, not on top of the wrist, a watch that doesn’t protrude from the wrist as you can see with models that are too large, or that have exaggeratedly long lugs. Here, and again this is highly personal, the 36mm Air Command Flyback Chronograph felt just right! And oh so comfortable.
Yes, Blancpain has done a great move in making this compact model. It’ll certainly attract a feminine audience who wants a sporty, non-diamond paved watch, but surely it’ll speak to men with slightly off-trend tastes. Just like Rolex with the return to the 36mm case for the Explorer, I can only congratulate Blancpain for this downsized version – and not a feminised version of a men’s watch. The best is that you’ll have two options, which opens the door for alternatives. As such, I can only encourage you to try both versions. Don’t start with preconceived ideas. And who knows, you’ll maybe enjoy the charm of a small watch again!
Availability & Price
The titanium and gold editions of the Blancpain Air Command Flyback Chronograph 36mm are part of the permanent collection and aren’t limited. Prices are EUR 17,500 in titanium and EUR 28,920 in gold. Not the most accessible pilot’s chronograph, no doubt about this… For more details, please visit blancpain.com.