Forgotten Heroes – the Breitling AerospaceBy Felix Scholz
The 80s were a fascinating time in the history of Swiss watches. Tumultuous and catastrophic — that is undeniable — but also exciting. It was an era of innovation and consolidation, a time for new ways of thinking. Few watches epitomise this spirit of change quite like Breitling’s Aerospace. Launched in 1985, the Aerospace was a leading example of that most 80s of designs, the ana-digi watch. And while the Aerospace still has a place in the Breitling catalogue, the times (and technologies) have changed dramatically over the years, and today’s Aerospace is but a shadow of its former self. We dive into the long history (and likely short future) of this iconic modern pilot.
Why Did It Stand Out
At first glance, you might think the most obvious party trick of the Aerospace was its pairing of a classical dial with a couple of digital readouts. And while that’s partially true, this unique design is just the visual symptom of the true appeal of the Aerospace. It’s a watch built purely for purpose and deeply imbued with the cool that comes from such designs. The Aerospace is the quartz-era successor to the iconic Navitimer. In fact, when it was first introduced, the Aerospace sat under the Navitimer umbrella. And like the iconic Navi, this watch was made with Breitling’s core audience in mind — pilots. And yes, naturally, this watch appealed to the aviation-adjacent and the Top Gun-wannabes, but it doesn’t distract from the fact that this watch was made with function front and centre. Measuring in at 40mm, cased in titanium and powered by a battery, these watches wore (and still wear) incredibly well. They also work incredibly well and intuitively, with a single, multipurpose crown that allows you to scroll through and set a range of complications. The top digital displays the complication (say, “T2” for the second time display), and that lower digital readout shows the pertinent info. Using this mechanism is simple, especially when compared to fiddly push-button systems, more common on digital watches.
All this adds up to an ease of use and a distinctive style that set the Aerospace above the rest.
What Happened Since
The Aerospace has been around for 35-plus years, with a heyday in the 80s and 90s. So, as you can imagine, watch has evolved quite a lot. Cases got larger, design elements evolved, and the internals changed once or twice, getting chronometre-certified in 1999 and thermo-compensated in 2001. Alongside the product development, the Aerospace spent its time earning a hard core of fans among professional flyers and enthusiasts of well-made technical watches. But it was in the former segment that the Aerospace really shone. Breitling was well represented in the aviation community — both military and civilian, and the Aerospace was a popular choice for private commissions, squadron watches and the like. In turn, this acceptance and representation led to the increased cachet of the Aerospace.
Why It Doesn’t Get the Love It Deserves
So the Breitling Aerospace is a well-made, functional and useful modern pilot’s watch with actual cool factor. So why is it relegated ot the lowest rung of Breitling’s display cabinet? Well, to be honest, outside of their heydey in the 1980s and early 90s ana-digi watches have always been a pretty niche affair, and that appeal only became more and more peripheral with the advent of smartwatches. On top of that, the market for high end, high function digital watches is dominated by so-called ABC watches, which offer an altimeter, barometer and compass and have a dedicated fanbase amongst hikers, trekkers and the like. Tissot’s innovative T-Touch is a solid example of this sort of watch. Breilting’s Aerospace doesn’t offer this sort of functionality. So once you take out the people who need a watch with functions powered by Apple or Android, those that need something cheap and digital or those that need a dedicated outdoors exploration tool, the number of people wanting to spend thousands of dollars on an Aerospace is starting to look pretty slim. So perhaps it’s not that it doesn’t get the love it deserves; rather not enough people can give it the love it needs.
What We’d Change
Sometimes the watches that we cover in these Forgotten Hero stories got left by the wayside because the designs were before their time or too outré, or perhaps the market didn’t react as well as the makers had hoped. That isn’t really the issue with the Aerospace. When it was introduced in 1985, it was a high tech watch that met a specific need, and this clear purpose and the accompanying cool factor ensured it got a fair amount of time in the sun, numerous evolutions, and it still has a presence in the Breitling catalogue. The truth is, the sun is setting on the Aerospace. Technology has improved, and we can fit so much more functionality into a watch — and that’s not even including connected devices — that time for the Aerospace is running out.