Favorite Watches: The Breitling Navitimer

“I need a Navitimer so I can do my calculations!” That was my cousin, a retired Air Force test pilot, talking watches with me at lunch several years ago. And what calculations was he talking about? Well, he meant every calculation a pilot or navigator needs to make to get from Point A to Point B in an aircraft.

And why did my cousin need the Breitling Navitimer, specifically? Because it’s the watch with a chronograph function, a tachymeter, and a circular slide rule bezel. Combined, those three features give said pilot or navigator the “navigation computer” that can make the calculations.

The famous Breitling Navitimer 'Navigation Computer' (slide rule bezel)

The famous Breitling Navitimer ‘Navigation Computer’ (slide rule bezel)

For most guys the Navitimer is thee watch that defines the pilot watch genre. It’s not a simple three-hander with a rotating coin-edge bezel, a black dial, Arabic numerals, and cathedral hands that also comes to mind. It’s a complicated, sophisticated piece of machinery. And on that level, it appeals to the macho in a lot of guys.

But others recognize the tool watch nature of the beast. This is a watch that can get you where you need to go – as long as that somewhere isn’t wet. The Navitimers, especially the older versions, are notorious for their lack of water resistance.

The Navitimer evolved from the Chronomat, and first met the public in 1954 (although some say 1952). The Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association (the AOPA, with whom Breitling teamed with for development of the watch) immediately adopted the watch. Many early examples feature their winged logo on the dial.

The modern Limited Edition of the Navitimer AOPA

The modern Limited Edition of the Navitimer AOPA

Early watches were hand wound, with movements like the Valjoux 72, the 7736, and the Venus 178 purring away inside. Larger cases came along in 1968, and in the early 1970s a date window appeared.

Breitling fell on hard times in the late 1970s, and the company, along with all assets, was sold. But with Breitling under new ownership, the Navitimer reappeared in 1986, with a Lemania 1872 movement. In 1988, it was updated with an automatic. By the 1990s, the engine was the hardy Valjoux 7750. In 1999, The Navitimer gained CSOC chronometer certification.

Breitling Cosmonaute

Breitling Cosmonaute

And finally, the Navitimer story – and the reason the watch is one of my favorites – wouldn’t be complete without a bit about the Cosmonaute. The Cosmonaute is the 24 hour variant of the Navitimer.

If the Navitimer is the eldest son of the family made good, the Cosmonaute is the little brother who was left behind on a camping trip and raised by wolves.

See, soon after astronaut Scott Carpenter was chosen for the Mercury space program in the infant 1960s, he realized you can’t tell day from night in space by merely looking at your watch. So he called Breitling up to explain the dilemma.

Breitling responded with a 24 hour version of the Navitimer, and Carpenter received his just days before the launch of his Aurora Seven Mercury mission. The watch worked flawlessly in space, although the five hour flight was too short to rigorously test the 24 hour concept.

Alas, upon splashdown and recovery, Carpenter briefly dipped his watch wrist into the sea. The watch was toast. Soggy toast. (Remember what we said up above about the Nav being notoriously non-water resistant?)

NASA sent the watch back to Breitling for repair, but (insert conspiracy theory of choice here) the watch went missing, and has never been found.

So if you’re ever at a flea market and you come across a Breitling Cosmonaute with a little sea water corrosion, snap it up.

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