Precision In Flight: IWC’s Historical & Enduring Bond With Military Aviation

Precision In Flight: IWC’s Historical & Enduring Bond With Military Aviation

As a CIA Case Officer, one of my go-to watches was an IWC Mark XVII. It’s a great and versatile watch that can fit in with a suit and tie at a diplomatic function in Europe or jeans and a dirty t-shirt in the African bush. Notably, IWC also has a strong squadron watch program and a significant following in the aviation community around the world. 

To document a first-hand perspective, we asked Nic Barnes, an Australian military pilot, to write a Dispatch on the history of the brand and his experience using IWC watches as a military aviator.

This piece is co-written with Henry Black, a previous W.O.E. contributor and full-time journalist based in Australia.

As always, this content is not sponsored and the views and perspectives are of the authors. At W.O.E., we are brand agnostic but do support any brand that supports our community.

Precision In Flight: IWC’s Historical & Enduring Bond With Military Aviation

IWC’s Special Pilot’s Watch Ref. IW436
IWC’s Special Pilot’s Watch Ref. IW436. (Photo Credit: IWC)

International Watch Company (IWC) Schaffhausen is a watchmaker steeped in history. Their modern line of luxury tool watches are direct descendants of the company’s military aviation watches of the mid-20th Century. 

IWC Schaffhausen’s history with pilot’s watches predates World War II. In 1936, the company was owned by Ernst Homberger who had two sons that were keen amateur pilots. The boys helped to produce the Special Pilot’s Watch (Ref. IW436) using their flying experience to dictate the specifications and requirements of the timepiece. The design established the foundational DNA for IWC’s future pilot’s watches with an emphasis on legibility and durability that would in time lead to two distinct watch families - the ‘Big Pilot’ and ‘Mark’ series.

Watches Of War

During WWII, the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) identified a requirement to replace the aging Army Trade Pattern (ATP) watches that had adorned the wrists of their troops since 1939. These new timepieces needed to be waterproof, shockproof, and highly accurate with a black dial, legible Arabic numerals, and the ability to read the watch at night.

Twelve Swiss watchmakers took on the task of manufacturing these W.W.W. (‘Wrist Watch Waterproof’) specification watches. As one of the 12 makers, IWC provided an estimated 5,000 – 6,000 ‘Dirty Dozen’ timepieces to the MoD. The design would later evolve into the IWC Mark 11 – introduced after the war in the late 1940s. 

IWC Mark 11 Dirty Dozen
IWC’s W.W.W. is one of the rarer ‘Dirty Dozen’ watches in circulation today. (Photo Credit: Watch-Site x Steltman Watches)

Interestingly, while IWC was supplying W.W.W. watches to Commonwealth forces, it was concurrently supplying the German Luftwaffe (Air Force) with ‘B-Uhr’ timepieces. These onion-crowned watches were over 50mm in size and featured sword hands along with a prominent triangle and paired dots marking the 12 o’clock position. Much of the design DNA in today’s IWC Pilot’s line-up can be seen in these oversized pilot’s watches for the Luftwaffe with IWC’s modern Big Pilot’s watches drawing their aesthetics directly from the Luftwaffe B-Uhrs. Of note, IWC supplied watches to both the Axis and the Allies during WWII.

iwc b-uhr beobachtungsuhr pilot's watch history
IWC produced approximately 1,000 B-Uhr models for the Luftwaffe (Photo Credit: SJX)

War Reaches Schaffhausen

WWII did not leave IWC’s hometown of Schaffhausen unscathed. In April 1944 a disorientated U.S. Air Force bomber group of 15 B-24 Liberators mistook the Swiss town for a German target. Dropping as many as 371 high explosive bombs and incendiary munitions on the town, the resulting carnage killed 40 people (including members of author Henry’s own family) and caused widespread damage. One bomb dropped through the roof of the IWC factory but luckily did not explode. 

A B-24 Liberator of the 392nd Bomb Group that accidentally bombed Schaffhausen in 1944.
A B-24 Liberator of the 392nd Bomb Group that accidentally bombed Schaffhausen in 1944. (Photo Credit: United States Army Air Force)

Interestingly, declassified correspondence from November 1944 gives further insight into such incidents. Director of Office of Strategic Services (OSS), William J. Donovan describes to Commander of the United States Army Air Forces, General Henry H. Arnold that the accidental American bombing of Swiss towns was deeply disturbing the Chief of Staff of the Swiss Army and increasing ‘the difficulty in obtaining Swiss cooperation in our present task of penetrating Germany’.

Mark 11 – A New Standard in Military Aviation Timepieces

After the war, IWC introduced their navigator's wristwatch Mk.11 - Stores Ref. 6B/346 (Mark 11), taking the basic principles of the tough tool watch that was the W.W.W. and upping the ante. The Mark 11 removed the sub-seconds and utilized an IWC Calibre 89 manual wind movement with a central seconds. It featured a Faraday cage to resist magnetic interference and proved to be immensely capable as a timepiece for military aviators. These watches were issued to Commonwealth Air Forces, including the Royal Air Forces of Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, the South African Air Force, and the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC).

IWC Mark 11 for the Royal Australia Air Force circa 1957
IWC Mark 11 for the Royal Australian Air Force circa 1957 (Photo Credit: IWC)

Neo-Classic IWC Military-Inspired Models

The design of the Mark 11 (which was in production from 1949-1953 with a second iteration for the civilian market from 1973-1984) went on to influence the ‘Mark’ timepieces that followed, specifically the Mark XII (introduced in 1994) and Mark XV (introduced in 1999). These subsequent iterations utilized a similar handset design including the iconic ‘block’ hour hand and classical sizing – the Mark XII was 36mm, and the Mark XV was 38mm. The Mark XII used a Jaeger Le-Coultre calibre while the Mark XV used a heavily modified ETA 2892-A2.

The Mark XV was the last of the Mark series to feature the ‘block’ hour hand (Photo Credit: Henry Black)
The Mark XV was the last of the Mark series to feature the ‘block’ hour hand (Photo Credit: Henry Black)

The Mark XVI represented a turning point in IWC’s modern pilot designs – one that has continued to the current Mark XX. While retaining their commitment to solid specifications, the numeral font, dotted triangle marker at 12, and use of flieger sword hands have far more in common with the Luftwaffe B-Uhr watches than the MoD Mark 11s that share the Mark name. This flieger design is reflected across other modern IWC pilots including the Big Pilot and Pilot Chronograph, unfortunately leaving the original Mark 11 with no aesthetic successor in the brand’s current catalogue.

IWC Pilot’s Watch Automatic Edition ‘RAAF’ (Photo Credit: @timepoor)
IWC Pilot’s Watch Automatic Edition ‘RAAF’ (Photo Credit: @timepoor)

Modern Military Connections

In 2007, IWC entered a commercial relationship with the US Navy, becoming an official licensee and beginning their line of TOP GUN watches. Featuring the logo of the 1980s hit movie of the same name, the series of watches became a stable of IWC’s offerings with licensing fees directly funding morale, welfare, and recreation programs for US sailors, retirees, and their families.

TOPGUN & Other "Unit Watches"

The IWC Pilot’s Watch Chronograph Edition 'SFTI' features the school’s patch on the dial (Photo Credit: @h.m.uhren)
The IWC Pilot’s Watch Chronograph Edition 'SFTI' features the school’s patch on the dial (Photo Credit: @h.m.uhren)

This prepared the foundation of a more organic relationship – IWC’s foray into custom squadron watches. Having seen watches from the TOP GUN line, pilots from the United States Navy Fighter Weapons School (the real TOPGUN) reached out to IWC to investigate the feasibility of making their own piece for the Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor (SFTI) program. The result was the 2018 release of the IWC’s first custom military piece – the Edition ‘SFTI’ in both a Pilot’s Watch Mark XVIII and a Pilot’s Watch Chronograph. These exclusive watches continue to be made today but can only be purchased by TOPGUN graduates.

The IWC Pilot’s Watch Automatic Edition 'SFTI' worn by Monica Barbaro on the set of Top Gun: Maverick  (Photo Credit: Paramount)
The IWC Pilot’s Watch Automatic Edition 'SFTI' worn by Monica Barbaro on the set of Top Gun: Maverick  (Photo Credit: Paramount)

The SFTI connection paid dividends for IWC when filming began for Top Gun: Maverick. The film crew noticed the Navy pilots wearing their custom IWCs and, in pursuit of authenticity, ended up being introduced by the pilots to IWC CEO Chris Grainger-Herr, resulting in almost every character in the film wearing IWCs. 

Since the first SFTI watches, exclusive squadron collaborations have continued at a small scale and considered pace. This means IWC is very particular about the projects the brand approves, with limited production slots available. Falling under the Richemont group, IWC is generally hesitant to publicly elaborate on their military collaborations although Watches and Wonders 2022 marked a departure from this discretion. The IWC booth featured an exhibit of the brand’s military projects to date – with a total of 18 on display

IWC Pilot’s Watch Chronograph ‘APACHE AH-64E’ (Photo Credit: @chrisgraingerherr)
IWC Pilot’s Watch Chronograph ‘APACHE AH-64E’ (Photo Credit: @chrisgraingerherr)

While predominantly working with US Navy fighter squadrons, other military editions were shown including watches for Swiss Air Force Staffel 11, French Aeronavale, No. 663 Squadron Army Air Corps (British AH-64 Apache attack helicopters), and a very special homage to the IWC Mark 11 issued to Royal Australian Air Force aircrew in the 1950s. Notably, all known custom military projects have strict and tangible ties to professional military aviation.

IWC Big Pilot’s Watch ‘TYPHOON DRIVER’ (Photo Credit: @blackseries_driver)
IWC Big Pilot’s Watch ‘TYPHOON DRIVER’ (Photo Credit: @blackseries_driver)

The Future of Aviation Horology 

Beyond atmospheric flight, IWC was recently involved with the Inspiration4 private space program. Commanded by the billionaire owner of the world’s largest private air force, Jared Isaacman (under usual W.O.E. criteria you’d expect him to be a Breitling guy), Each of the four astronauts of this first all-civilian mission to orbit wore a custom Pilot’s Watch Chronograph Edition ‘Inspiration4’. After the mission each watch was auctioned, raising a total of $405,000 USD for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.

Collaborations with Isaacman’s space endeavors are forecast to continue with the launch of the Polaris Dawn mission later this year. This mission is scheduled to include the first private spacewalk and result in another auction of new special edition IWCs to be worn during the flight. 

The IWC Pilot’s Watch Chronograph Edition ‘Inspiration4’ (Image credit: IWC)
The IWC Pilot’s Watch Chronograph Edition ‘Inspiration4’ (Image credit: IWC)

Final Thoughts

While the role of wristwatches in aviation has changed over the last century, IWC’s commitment to aviation ‘use-your-tools’ wristwatches remains. From the humble beginnings of IWC’s Special Pilot’s Watch in 1936 to their custom pieces for private space exploration, IWC has firmly and legitimately positioned itself as a brand for professional aviators, synonymous with the frank design purpose of the pilot’s watch.

IWC Pilot’s Chronograph ‘Death Rattlers’ (Photo Credit: @wingwatches)
IWC Pilot’s Chronograph ‘Death Rattlers’ (Photo Credit: @wingwatches)

Their commitment to legibility, durability, and continuous technical improvement, along with their lasting ties to military aviation resonates with the W.O.E. community, creating unique watches to be cherished and used by generations to come.

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 About The Authors: Nic is an Australian military pilot who has been a follower of W.O.E. since the early days. He has a particular interest in custom military watch projects having designed and produced timepieces with multiple brands

Henry is a journalist based in Australia who writes about watches in his spare time. He’s worked around the world including in conflict zones. He’s passionate about watches and how the hobby brings people together.

Cover Photo Credit: IWC Pilot’s Watch Automatic Edition ‘AÉRONAVALE’ (Photo Credit: @etienne_b___r)

4 comments

Great article. IWC is a great company and a true manufacture.
What wasn’t mentioned was the reason these watches were so huge. They were designed to be worn over the flight jacket sleeve so they could be seen while the pilot was quite busy. Some vintage models can be found with the long leather strap made for this purpose.
That’s why they look out of place worn on the wrist.

Bill

Nice piece. A Faraday cage will not protect the movement from a magnetic field. It will only insulate it from electromagnetic radiation.

Brian McNamara

IWC B-Uhren are all Type A, it was Jan 1941 when Type B dials began, implying IWC didn’t ship further watches to the German importer after some time in 1940. Of note is the son of IWCs owner-CEO was severely wounded defending Swiss airspace from German Me-100s (he was in a Swiss Me-109 E purchased by Switzerland before the war). 200 IWC Cal 52T S.C. (What was used in the IWC B-Uhrs) were delivered to the British Royal Navy sometime in 1940 too.

No specific documentation but I suspect the Homberger family had some feelings about who they were supplying once it hit home.

Kent S

I always enjoy the historical Dispatch articles. Cool piece Nic and Henry!

Jake L

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