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More than marking the time

Long before Charles Lindbergh set off on his historic solo flight across the north Atlantic, a clock or watch with split-second precision was essential equipment in the cockpit.


November 1, 2012
By David Carr

Long before Charles Lindbergh set off on his historic solo flight across the north Atlantic, a clock or watch with split-second precision was essential equipment in the cockpit. Aviation gave birth to the men’s wristwatch in 1904, when Santos Dumont, the Brazilian aviator and spiritual founder of Embraer, invited his friend Louis Cartier to design a strap-on watch to replace his less convenient pocket watch during flight. (Ladies were already wearing wristwatches, so a model for men was only a matter of time.) Watchmakers have been cashing in on their aviation roots ever since, crafting timepieces that capture the thrill and romance of flight.

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The Britain-based Breitling Angels aerobatic team have been thrilling audiences worldwide for a number of years.
Photo: Breitling


 

For some watchmakers, their connection with aviation is an exaggerated but effective marketing ploy. With others, the link is more genuine. No other watch manufacturer has strapped its brand as tightly around aviation’s heritage as Breitling, a Swiss-based manufacturer of high-end chronographs.

To re-enforce its aeronautical bona fides, every year Breitling turns heads at air shows across Europe with thrilling aerobatic displays, wing walkers and the largest professional civilian jet formation team in the world.

“We want our brand to be closely associated with aviation,” said Stefano Albinati, Breitling’s aviation department director, who manages an operation consisting of 17 aircraft and some 50 support staff, including full-time pilots. “Any manufacturer can show a picture of a watch inside a cockpit. We want our customers to feel like they are part of the experience. That is the image we want to send.”

Founded by Leon Breitling in 1884, Breitling has been instrumental in the development of the modern chronograph, and a pioneer in wrist chronographs. Breitling’s conquest of the skies began in the 1930s by equipping Second World War fighter aircraft, including Royal Air Force (RAF) Spitfires, with onboard chronographs. An RAF Spitfire is anchored to the rooftop of Breitling’s headquarters in Grenchen, Switzerland. In 1952, the watchmaker launched the Navitimer, which featured a circular slide rule intended for airborne navigation. Shortly after, the company added wings to its stylized initial B logo.

Breitling began assembling its eclectic air fleet in 1992, acquiring a vintage DC-3, circa 1940, and now either owns or sponsors a mini-Smithsonian that hits all the glory marks of aviation from Depression-era barnstorming to the golden age of air travel with one of the world’s last airworthy Lockheed Super Constellations, which had been restored by a group of passionate enthusiasts in the 1990s.

The fleet is spread across Europe. Once a year, Breitling brings its “toys” together at the picturesque Bouchs Airport with its stunning views of the magnificent Swiss Alps. Over a two-week period in the summer, jewelry store owners and buyers (along with the occasional journalist) are brought to Bouchs from around the world to release their inner daredevil with an interactive air show that includes wing walking, sky jumping and aerobatic flying either with the Breitling Angels, onboard one of four brightly painted Pitt Special S2A biplanes, or as part of the Breitling Jet Team strapped into the spare seat of a powerful L-39C Albatros.

(Your humble correspondent keeps his inner daredevil well buried and confined his activities to a flight over the Alps in the DC-3 and a fast-paced ride up a mountain in a Bentley Continental GT, driven by Derek Bell, a former Formula One driver and five-time Le Mans 24-hour endurance race champion. Breitling has had a partnership with Bentley since 2003, when the luxury carmaker approached the watchmaker to take part in the design of the Continental line’s technical instrumentation. The GT features a Breitling clock on the highly polished dashboard.)

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The Breitling Jet Team performs more than 40 displays at air shows across Europe every summer. Photo: Breitling


 

The Britain-based Breitling Angels aerobatic team is led by Nigel Lamb, an aerial acrobatics ace who is a winner of the British National Unlimited Aerobatic Championship for an unprecedented eight consecutive times, and competitor in the Red Bull Air Race World Championship until that event was placed on hiatus after the 2010 season. Lamb also flew the first civilian aerobatic team in China in 1996, and recently returned to that country to perform alongside the Jet Team as part of Breitling’s first Asian tour.

Next year, the Breitling Jet Team celebrates its 10th anniversary. Since picking up sponsorship of the team based in Dijon France in 2003, Breitling has increased the fleet from an original four Albatros airplanes in 2003, to seven. In 2010, the fleet got an exterior make over with a distinct black and dark gray livery, with the company name painted in bright yellow across and underneath the fuselage.

The Breitling Jet Team performs more than 40 displays at air shows across Europe every summer. The schedule was disrupted in September after an engine on number two aircraft failed in a repositioning flight from the Netherlands to Belgium. The pilot and technician ejected and landed safely. Two shows were cancelled as the fleet underwent extensive checks and examinations before return to the circuit. (Breitling has a spare Albatros used for air-to-air photos, passenger flights and as a replacement aircraft when needed.)

In addition to the Jet Team, the Breitling Angels, Wingwalkers and vintage airliners top the bill at air shows throughout. Breitling is also the lead sponsor of the annual Reno Air Races, the last pylon-racing event in the world, and has been at the centre of several modern-day historic firsts. In 1999, Bertrand Piccard of Switzerland and Englishman Brian Jones piloted the Breitling Orbiter III on the first non-stop, round-the-world balloon flight, beating out aviation notables such as Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson. The Orbiter III has since been retired to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
In 2008, Swiss aviator Yves Rossy – the Breitling Jetman – flew across the English Channel strapped to a rigid, carbon Kevlar wing powered by four jet engines. The Breitling Jetman has followed up that accomplishment with breathtaking flights over the Grand Canyon in 2011 and Rio de Janerio in 2012.

Such air power does not come cheap, especially at a time of rising fuel prices. Albinati, a pilot certified on several aircraft, including the Dassault Falcon 900 EX and 2000 refuses to say how much. “It is not about cost,” he says. “We want people who own airplanes or love aviation to know that we are part of the fun.” But while cost remains a closely guarded secret, the power of aviation to move over 150,000 timepieces a year from jewellers’ display cases cannot be undervalued. In 2010, the Financial Times estimated that media exposure for the wing walking team alone was worth between $7 and $10 million a year to its sponsor.

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Swiss aviator Yves Rossy is the resident daredevil on the Breitling team. He has made numerous flights strapped to a rigid carbon wing powered by four jet engines.
Photo: Breitling


 

Albinati is just as tight-lipped over future fleet expansion. He points out that vintage machines such as the DC-3 and restored Connie are high-maintenance aircraft and expensive to operate. As if to illustrate the point, the anticipated arrival of the Constellation at Bouchs was scrubbed when the airliner experienced technical difficulties and was returned to Germany. Albinati does hint that Breitling might be in the market for a jet fighter. It could turn out to be a timely acquisition. The watchmaker’s U.S. subsidiary is reported to be discussing a new project with Mark Kelly, a retired U.S. Navy aviator and astronaut.

In 1962, Breitling entered the space race. American Astronaut Scott Carpenter wore a purpose built Navitimer during his historic three orbit voyage around the earth on board the Aurora 7 spacecraft. The brand became the first wristwatch to be blasted into space. This year, Breitling is celebrating the 50th anniversary with every aviator’s dream stocking stuffer, a limited edition Navitimer Cosmonaute that draws heavily from the manual winding chronograph originally worn by Carpenter, including a 24-hour display.

With Breitling, the next aviation thrill is around the corner. Earlier this year, a group of lucky passengers were onboard the Breitling DC-3 to observe the Jetman streaking across the skies over Lake Lucerne. Rossy has also flown in formation with both the Jet Team and Breitling Angels.

Once a navigational instrument to aid the lonely pilot calculate distance and gauge fuel consumption, the timeless design of the aviator watch continues to attract pilots and non-pilots alike, even though the modern chronograph is so complex that only a fraction of owners can use all functions.

Owners don’t care. And while the category doesn’t need it, the classic aviator timepiece is in for an uptick when the sequel to Top Gun, Tom Cruise’s 1986 breakout blockbuster is released, although the status of that picture is up in the air. In the meantime, the Breitling logo will continue to roar across the skies, with sales of its finely crafted chronographs along for the ride.