During Watches & Wonders 2023, Zenith unveiled an entirely new Pilot collection that radically changed the flight path of this storied collection. As a brand with legitimate pilot watch credentials, dating to Louis Blériot’s successful cross-Channel flight in a monoplane in 1909 with a ‘Special’ Zenith wristwatch strapped to his wrist, the brand’s decision to jettison the vintage personality that had defined the Montre d’Aéronef Type 20 collection since its reappearance in 2012 was daring. Comprised of a 40mm time-and-date and a larger 42.5mm Big Date Pilot Flyback, both available in matte black ceramic or steel, the look of the new collection is modern and, for many, welcomed as a breath of fresh air. Zenith is putting all its pilot eggs in one basket, confident that the contemporary looks and powerful El Primero movement will keep its new Pilot airborne. Let’s take a closer look at the Big Date Pilot Flyback in steel equipped with a new version of the brand’s legendary El Primero calibre.
Without recounting Zenith’s long and successful role as a producer of pilot watches and dashboard instruments (montre d’aéronef) for military and civilian pilots (you can read all about this exciting alliance here), suffice it to say that Zenith’s founder Georges-Favre Jacot had a gut feeling about the advent of aviation and filed a trademark for the term ‘Pilote’ in 1888, five years before the Wright brothers made the first sustained flight in 1903. The English term was trademarked in 1904, and Zenith is still the only brand that can use the word Pilot on a watch dial.
While the watch that best captured the spirit of Zenith’s early flight companions was incarnated by the massive, hyper-vintage Montre d’Aéronef Type 20 or Pilot Type 20, and all its derivations, there were admittedly other pilot watches with slightly less overt vintage traits in the collection, like the A. Cairelli Tipo CP-2 flyback chronograph modelled on a 1960s pilot watch supplied to the Italian army revisited by the brand in 2016.
“redesigned from scratch”
Gone are the oversized cases, the cathedral hands, the massive onion-style crowns, the Gothic numerals and straight lugs that were hallmark Pilot Type 20 features, all tossed overboard in favour of a far more contemporary design language. Known simply as Pilot, the difference between this new collection and the Type 20 is as extreme as the difference between an IWC Big Pilot’s Watch Antoine de Saint Exupéry and a stealth ceramic Top Gun. What struck us as surprising, however, is that, unlike IWC, which offers a wide range of differentiated pilot watches, Zenith has wiped out all pre-existing pilot watches in its collection and currently only offers these two new versions of the Pilot.
Still endowed with the essential pilot watch attributes of legibility, durability, intuitiveness and accuracy, the new Pilot Big Date Flyback has a 42.5mm stainless steel case. It’s not small, but neither is it oversized since pilot’s watches tend to be big. The 100m water-resistant case is characterised by wide tapering lugs, a large diamond-shaped notched crown, rectangular chronograph pushers and a wide and very flat bezel. Finished with vertically brushed surfaces and polished bevels on the lugs and bezel, the fact that the case middle is all but hidden under the bezel means that the rotundity of the bezel dominates the look.
As the brand states, the black opaline dial is decorated with horizontal grooves “to mimic the look of corrugated metal sheets that make up the fuselage of many older aircrafts”. The dual-register chronograph, with a 30-minute counter at 3 and running seconds at 9 o’clock, is complemented by a big date window at 6 o’clock. Although Zenith had a Pilot Big Date Special model from 2012, the date discs on the new models are better integrated and match the dial colour with a black background and large white numerals making it particularly easy to read.
Unlike the black ceramic model, the dial of the stainless steel watch has a fun Easter egg surprise and honours the Zenith Rainbow Flyback of 1997 – the first flyback chronograph version of the El Primero. As a nod to the colourful and flamboyant 1997 Rainbow Flyback, the 30-min chronograph totaliser is rendered in alternating colours (green, yellow and blue) and, like the original, is indicated by a bright orange hand matching the central chronograph seconds hand.
In line with its pilot watch attributes, there is plenty of luminescent material on the dial. The sword-shaped hour and minute hands, the tip of the two chronograph hands and the applied indices are filled with Super-LumiNova. The Arabic numerals are rendered in a modern, highly legible font and where the digits have been truncated to accommodate the counters and the “Pilot” name, Zenith’s designers have popped in two round luminescent plots at 3 and 9 o’clock and a rounded rectangular bar at 6 o’clock.
With the combination of a flat round bezel and horizontal grooves, is anybody else getting a whiff of the Piaget Polo?
El Primero 3652
Where Zenith’s Pilot Big Date Flyback model trumps most competitors in the crowded pilot watch market is in the movement department. Based on Zenith’s high-frequency chronograph movement – El Primero 3600 – featured in the Chronomaster Sport, the new El Primero 3652 shares the same 5Hz frequency, the 1/10th of a second display and 60-hour power reserve. However, the new El Primero 3652 is far more complex and combines the magic of a flyback chronograph with a handsome big date function.
The big date display has a new-generation patented compliant mechanism that advances and stabilises both of the wheels in less than 0.02 seconds, ensuring a snap date jump in 0.007 seconds. As a function conceived for aviators, the flyback chronograph permitted pilots to stop, reset and restart the chronograph with a single push of a button, simplifying operations and allowing for the recording of two consecutive times. The sapphire caseback reveals the openworked rotor designed to replicate the “artificial horizon” found in cockpits to inform the pilot of the aircraft’s orientation relative to Earth’s horizon.
The steel model comes with two interchangeable straps: a black Cordura-effect (nylon woven fabric) rubber strap with Cordura effect and a brown calfskin leather strap. Thanks to the quick-release mechanism integrated into the back of the straps, these can be exchanged with no tools by detaching them from the spring bars. The design of the steel triple-folding clasp is also new.
Availability & Price
The Zenith Pilot Big Date Flyback and the Pilot Automatic are the only models currently in Zenith’s pilot watch section. The steel version of the Pilot Big Date Flyback retails for CHF 11,400 / EUR 12,300. For more information, please consult zenith-watches.com.