On November 27 2004, a CASA 212 turboprop cargo aircraft crashed into the side of a mountain in Afghanistan’s Koh-i-Baba range. The National Transportation Safety Board investigation concluded the majority of the passengers likely died on impact but at least one individual lived, ultimately succumbing to the combination of his injuries and the high altitude and cold Afghan alpine temperatures. Rescue teams were unable to immediately locate the aircraft in the rugged terrain.
The aircraft was operated by Presidential Airways Inc., the aviation subsidiary of the now-notorious private military contractor Blackwater USA. Callsign “Blackwater 61,” was transporting uniformed Army soldiers and 400 lbs of mortar illumination rounds from Bagram Air Base to Farah as a part of a US Department of Defense contract to transport equipment and personnel in and around Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan.
Blackwater CEO and former Navy SEAL Erik Prince reflected on the event, and he concluded he would need to increase the ability to locate and rescue Blackwater employees and contractors that he sent into harm's way.
Blackwater PSD protecting head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq (Photo Credit: AP)
Beyond the plane crash, Prince had reason for concern. Blackwater started as a private training center for Special Operations and Law Enforcement units in the late 1990s but quickly expanded as a private military contractor to meet the US Government’s growing need for security, logistics and training in the rapidly-changing post-9/11 environment. At the time, Blackwater had thousands of personnel deployed in austere environments on behalf of the US government and allied nations. The job was dangerous but the pay exceeded what the contractors would receive in their prior uniformed service.
Prince had lost men in war-zones before and knew that this would not be the last time his people would need assistance. Prince envisioned a wearable Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) that he could provide to his men and women serving in harm's way to enable an effective response in times of crisis.
Prince had cultivated a vast network of relationships abroad, and a few months after the crash, Prince received a Breitling Emergency with a Middle Eastern nation's royal crest emblazoned on the dial. (Prince requested that the Monarch not be named out of respect for the relationship.) Prince admired the watch and the capabilities it promised.
Late 1990’s Breitling Emergency Advertisement- (Photo Credit: Unknown)
While the watch has a number of functions expected in a modern digital quartz movement, it contains an antenna that broadcasts a signal on the 121.5 MHz aircraft emergency frequency when activated. Commercial and military aircraft monitored the frequency and were able to alert search and rescue teams of an individual's location, anywhere in the world.
Prince, a pilot since the age of 16, was familiar with the technology and was confident that this watch would add an additional layer of protection for his people serving overseas. Prince knew he could even leverage Blackwater’s own aerial platforms and personnel to locate a missing contractor if needed.
The combination of the plane crash in Afghanistan and the gift from the Middle Eastern Monarch sparked an idea. Prince would present a custom Blackwater-branded Breitling Emergency to those employees that deployed regularly to nonpermissive environments as an added form of protection.
Prince in Kabul, Afghanistan, 2009 (Photo Credit: Adam Ferguson)
In mid-2005, Prince contacted The Precious Gem, a Breitling Authorized Dealer located on Duke of Gloucester Street in Williamsburg, Virginia, an hour and a half drive north of Blackwater’s campus in Moyock, North Carolina. Prince was familiar with the store as he had purchased jewelry for his wife there when he was stationed in Virginia Beach as a Navy SEAL.
Emulating the Middle Eastern monarch, Prince requested the inclusion of the Blackwater logo, bear’s paw print in a red cross hairs, on the dial. Through Breitling’s customization program, governments, military units and corporate entities could add their logo to the dial with a minimum order of 50 units.
When it came to the decision to include the Blackwater logo, Erik explained that people specifically joined Blackwater for a reason and like any elite military unit, his operators were fiercely loyal to Blackwater, some even going as far as tattooing the paw branding on their body.
Prince ordered the initial batch of 100 Breitling Emergencies, twice the minimum requirement for custom orders. Months later the company would order another 50 units. With a per unit cost of $4,700 per watch, Prince was told that Blackwater became the largest corporate client for Breitling at the time, spending over $700,000 on the watches (before taxes, of course).
W.O.E.’s Personal Collection (Photo Credit James Rupley)
After the initial 100 arrived in early January 2006, the watches were ceremoniously presented as recognition of an employee's service to the company but more importantly they served as a symbolic –and functional– commitment from Blackwater that the leadership would do everything possible to secure their safe return in the event of an emergency. In a recent conversation, Prince explained “companies give loyalty gifts; this is a loyalty gift that could save their life.” It was meant as a clear message from Prince, the sole owner of Blackwater, to his operators that “We have your back, we are coming for you.”
While a limited number of watches were given to C-suite executives out of respect, according to Prince the majority of the watches were presented to individuals in deployable positions that were regularly working in the “hot zones.”
A former senior Blackwater executive explained that the choice of the watch was a “very deliberate choice by Erik, it was a promise or assurance that we would come and get you if you got in trouble.” And this was not an empty promise. At the time, Blackwater had thousands of contractors and fixed and rotary wing aircraft located primarily in the warzones of Iraq and Afghanistan but also throughout dozens of other countries in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. The company had the training and personnel to conduct search and rescue and kidnap and ransom, in fact Blackwater even provided this capability as a service for governments and private sector entities.
Prince also understood the sentimental value of receiving a watch as a gift to commemorate a specific achievement or accomplishment. The son of a wealthy businessman, in his younger days Prince could easily afford a Rolex but insisted that he wanted to accomplish something meaningful before purchasing a high end watch. When he graduated from the arduous “BUD/S” (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) training course required to become a Navy SEAL, his wife gifted him a Rolex Submariner to commemorate the achievement. In the present day, if he is not wearing his Breitling Emergency the commemorative Rolex Submariner can be found on his wrist.
Prince in his office, Breitling on his wrist, 2009 (Photo Credit: Nigel Parry)
Blackwater was not a normal company. While most companies provide gift cards and golf outings for team building exercises, Blackwater presented custom engraved firearms to mark accomplishments and competed in adventure races to build morale.
The men and women who received the Breitlings were also not your average corporate employees. As a former Navy SEAL, Prince recruited much of the leadership from the Naval Special Warfare community but also from the intelligence community, law enforcement agencies and elite aviation units. If you were at the tip of the spear, you were the kind of person that Prince wanted on his roster.
As Prince reflected on presenting the watches to his team, he laughed at remembering that the head of training for Blackwater, a former member of SEAL Team Six, had such massive forearms that he did not need to remove any of the links in the watch.
The Breitling Emergency remained a crucial tool for Blackwater staff working, living and traveling to many of the world's conflict zones. While the emergency beacon was never activated, the tool provided an additional level of protection should an individual require assistance, particularly those operating in non permissive environments.
Prince in Kandahar, Afghanistan. CASA-212 in Background (Photo Credit: Adam Ferguson)
Breitling has developed an almost cult-like following in the national security community. With strong roots in aviation, Breitling is a signal that one is adventurous but also appreciates fine craftsmanship in utilitarian tools. Breitling has cultivated this narrative through marketing and product development of unique tools for adventurers, particularly in the military and aviation space.
While likely an unintended consequence of this marketing, Breitlings have found their ways onto the wrists of many gray area operators–from former Soviet arms dealer Viktor Bout’s Breitling B-1, British SAS Officer turned Mercenary Simon Mann’s Breitling Emergency and Director of CIA George Tenet’s Breitling Aerospace. When Leonardo DiCaprio played Danny Archer, a former Rhodesian smuggler turned mercenary in the movie “Blood Diamond,” he wore a Breitling Chrono Avenger.
Prince in Blackwater’s North Carolina Training Facility, 2008 (Photo Credit: AP/Gerry Broome)
Today Prince is a controversial character in the area of national security, drawing praise from his supporters and scorn from his critics. To some he is a mercenary boss eager to profit off of war, to others he is a patriot who stood up to fulfill a vital need for the national security of the United States.
Regardless of one's personal views on Blackwater and their impact on global events, one cannot properly recount the history of modern Intelligence and Special Operations without discussing Blackwater. In the niche genre of military timepieces and Watches of Espionage this is an important story. Breitling developed this tool watch in the early 1990’s initially focused on the military and the aviation sectors. It was a practical wrist instrument designed for a singular purpose, to locate and rescue those in need.
While Breitling has documented incidents of the Breitling Emergency successfully utilized for this purpose, it is reasonable to conclude that the majority of those purchasing this watch will never be in a position where it would be necessary. Similar to a suburban dad spending thousands of dollars on a Range Rover yet never taking it off road, it is tempting to dismiss the Breitling Emergency as a gimmick, produced and sold to fulfill an emotional need to demonstrate to others that one is adventurous and daring.
This was not the case for those wearing the timepiece at Blackwater. As a former SEAL, pilot, and CEO of one of the most influential and powerful private security companies in modern history, Prince viewed this as another tool in the tool kit. The watches were purchased to do exactly what they were intended for, to provide a potential capability to locate those in danger. And anyone on the Blackwater payroll was almost certainly in danger more often than not.
W.O.E.'s personal collection.
Speaking with other working-level employees and contractors who received the watch in 2006, some continue to treasure the watch as a memento of their time at Blackwater, while others have sold them. A google search reveals that in 2014, a (presumable) former employee listed one for sale online for $5,000 in Boone, NC with the caveat that he “will consider trade for Harley or Seadoo Jetskis (sic).”
When questioned if he still wears his Breitling Emergency, Prince, who had just returned from a trip to the Middle East said, “I still wear it every day. Besides the expensive requirement to service it, it has been worth it.”
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This newsletter has been reviewed by the CIA’s Prepublication Classification Review Board to prevent the disclosure of classified information.