The Big Pilot's Watch (Grosse Fliegeruhr) is an over-sized pilot's watch from IWC, produced during World War II and again since 2002. Note that IWC referred to this model simply as Big Pilot until 2016, but newer models are called Big Pilot's Watch in English.
IWC created a “Spezialuhr für Flieger” (“Special Watch for Pilots”) in 1936 with clean black dial, large hands, and luminous numerals. Although the 36 mm case was fairly large for the time, pilots preferred an even larger dial and crown for extra visibility in the cockpit. Some wore “marriage watches” which were essentially pocketwatches with lugs welded to the case for in-flight observation. In 1940, IWC responded with an official product, the prototypical “Big Pilot's watch”. Created for the German Air Force, it had a massive 55 mm diameter case encasing the pocketwatch movement, Cal. 52 T.S.C. The original “Big Pilot” featured a luminous triangle at 12 flanked by two dots, plain numerals, and large luminous sword hands. Another essential element was a massive cone-shaped crown, allowing the watch to be operated while wearing gloves.
After the war, IWC responded to the British Ministry of Defense's request for a “Mark X” pilot's watch with their own IWC Pilot's Watch Mark X, updating this in 1948 with a simpler dial and hands for the Mark XI. This became a legendary collectible despite not officially being offered for consumer sale. The company created a consumer chronograph model in 1988 and followed up by a regular-production “flieger”, the Mark XII, in 1993.
By the end of the 1990s, the Mark XV and Pilot's Watch Chronograph had become signature models for IWC. Watch case sizes were growing rapidly, and consumers were responding to “heritage” models that recalled the past. So it was no surprise in 2002 that IWC would resurrect the “Big Pilot” once again. launched at SIHH in April 2002, the Big Pilot, Ref. 5002 was a new flagship model. It featured the in-house automatic Cal. 5011, which used the company's trademark Pellaton winding system and boasted a seven-day power reserve. Notable differences from the original are the smaller 46 mm case, central seconds, a date window at 6 00, and a power reserve indicator at 3 00. Befitting a flagship timepiece, limited-edition platinum examples were also created.
IWC updated the movement and expanded the line in 2006 with the replacement Big Pilot, Ref. 5004. The new Cal. 51110 operated at 21,600 A/h, still not high-beat but better than the stately 18,000 A/h in the original. Changes were also made to the dial, which lost the numeral 9 (for balance) but gained partial numerals at 2 and 4. The strap was now made of alligator leather rather than Santoni buffalo. A vast number of limited editions were created, many for boutiques or retailers with cases of rose gold, white gold, and platinum. One notable reference is the Big Pilot "DFB", Ref. IW5004-32 which included small seconds at 9 00 thanks to Cal. 51011. Another series of 12 used non-IWC watch movements as part of a special watchmaker's project.
In 2006 IWC created the limited-production Big Pilot Perpetual Calendar. It housed IWC's Cal. 51564, with seven-day power reserve and a four-digit year display at 7 30. Subdials at 3, 6, 9, and 12 crowded the dial, obscuring the intent of the Big Pilot, but there was no denying the appeal of this special movement. a “single moon” perpetual calendar was created in 2016, Ref. 5038, with Cal. 52610. The current perpetual calendar model uses Cal. 52615 and is sold in both Top Gun and Spitfire versions.
The watch was updated slightly in 2012 with a new crown that improved water resistance to become Big Pilot, Ref. 5009 with Cal. 51111. The dial was also modified, with the applied markers on the hours replaced by luminous painting for a more traditional look. A black background date wheel was also added, available on black and rhodium dials, with the others using a white date wheel as on the Ref. 5004. The Big Pilot "Patrouille Suisse", Ref. IW5009-10 used Cal. 51011 for small seconds at 9 00. The Ref. 5009 remains in production to this day as the IWC Big Pilot's Watch Spitfire.
Another 2012 addition was the larger 48 mm Big Pilot Top Gun and Big Pilot Perpetual Calendar Top Gun. This was the start of a new “Top Gun” sub-model for the IWC Pilot's Watch line, with large ceramic cases and modern military-inspired styling, though none are as large as this today. Four years later, IWC created a smaller 46 mm Big Pilot Top Gun, Ref. 5020.
In 2016, IWC revisited the original with the massive 55 mm Big Pilot Heritage 55, Ref. 5104. The hand-winding Cal. 98300 with small seconds is based on the original Cal. 98 found in the early IWC Portuguese watches. Just 100 examples of the Heritage 55 were produced in titanium. A more-wearable 48 mm Big Pilot Heritage 48, Ref. 5103 was also produced that year, using the more-modern eight days Cal. 59215. 1,000 pieces in titanium were sold.
IWC also created an annual calendar version in 2016 with Cal. 52850, the 46 mm Big Pilot's Watch Annual Calendar, Ref. 5027. These feature power reserve indicator at 3 00, small seconds at 9 00, and separate windows for month, date, and day at 12 00. This model remains in production as of 2019.
2018 was another big year for the Big Pilot's Watch, with the special Big Date, Ref. 5105 launched in limited editions with Cal. 59235. More importantly, the base Big Pilot was updated with the double barrel Cal. 52110 to become the new Big Pilot's Watch, Ref. 5010. Although visually similar, this new movement keeps better time when fully-wound. Another watch creating a splash at the end of the year was the Big Pilot Constant-Force Tourbillon, Ref. 5903 with Cal. 94805.