by Cole Pennington
A watch is just a watch–until we add meaning to it.
Open up the Rand McNally Encyclopedia of Military Aircraft, turn to the section on American warbirds and you’ll notice one plane is broken out under the heading “The P-51 Mustang: Perhaps the greatest fighter of them all”. The use of a superlative is a tricky claim to make when the pages are filled with the Mustang’s capable contemporaries like the Supermarine Spitfire, the Mitsubishi A6M5 Zero, and the P-47 Thunderbolt. But if you grew up in the ‘80s or ‘90s, you knew that this book was the authority on military aircraft. If Rand McNally said it was the greatest fighter of them all, then it was.
That one encyclopedia entry set the stage for a lifelong admiration of the P-51D. The plane came to represent more than just an exceptional piece of engineering; instead it became a symbol for the unbreakable American spirit and strength in the face of adversity. My fascination was bolstered by watching movies like Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line and seeing the Mustang come through when it’s needed most.
We often project these ideological values onto physical objects, I’m certainly guilty of it. In fact, the last thing James Kindelberger and Edgar Schmued were thinking about when they brought the Mustang to life was greatness. The plane was an answer to a proposal made by the British Purchasing Commission. It was a pragmatic solution to answer the growing needs of wartime. Like most mechanical objects I’ve grown to admire, it was born out of a need to get something done. It’s less art, and more tool.
Ahead of a big move to another continent, my girlfriend arranged a flight on the legendary warbird to punctuate our time in America as we prepared to move to Europe. After all these years, I finally got to experience another dimension of the Mustang: the aerial capabilities that established its dominance during WWII. Suddenly it wasn’t all ethereal and philosophical. Six G’s makes you forget about all that stuff and focus on just keeping your head on straight.
Man O'War, the P-51D I flew on, was first shipped to England during WWII but didn’t see any combat time. Later it found a home with the New Jersey National Guard. Today it rips through the skies of Palm Springs, CA, inspiring both those in the back seat and on the ground.
Adding an emotional layer to an inanimate physical object isn’t just something that happens with planes, of course. On a much smaller scale, it happens with watches, too.
For the Mustang ride, there was only one watch that made sense to wear, and it wasn’t a pairing I came up with. The legendary pilot Chuck Yeager started working with Rolex in 1946, but it was in the ‘80s that an advertisement featuring Yeager in front of a P-51D Mustang, wearing a GMT-Master II on his wrist was first published.
That day, flying in the Mustang with my GMT-Master II on my own wrist, I finally figured out why both the Mustang and the Rolex had become ideological symbols of something much bigger and more powerful than the actual tools they are.
There’s nothing greater than being inspired and reminded of what we’re capable of. We need heroes and legends to do that. Stories of this nature are the oldest form of currency. And sometimes it takes a watch or a plane to serve as a reminder of how much human ingenuity and perseverance we have within us. That’s what it’s really about.