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Frequent Flyers: Rolex’s Aviation Watches

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Paul Altieri

Just as their underwater creations have become some of the most recognizable and emulated watches ever made, Rolex’s line of aviation watches similarly has long had command of the skies.

The contemporary lineup includes three models aimed at pilots and international air travelers, ranging in functionality from the exceptionally simple to the beautifully complicated. Among them are one of the longest serving names in the business, alongside perhaps the most immediately identifiable design of them all.

Below we’ll take a look at all three of Rolex’s celebrated aviators.

The Rolex Air-King

Up first is the epitome of three-hand minimalism. The Air-King started life during WWII, one of a series of ‘Air’ models commissioned by Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf to honor the bravery of the Royal Air Force and their heroic defense of England in the Battle of Britain.

Aviation watches have long been a part of Rolex's history (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Aviation watches have long been a part of Rolex’s history (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

The RAF’s pilots had been replacing their standard issue 30mm Speedkings with Oyster Perpetuals for years, bought with their own money and preferred for their larger size and better legibility.

When Wilsdorf got word of this, he set about creating the Air Lion, Air Tiger, Air Giant and the Air-King — a range of manually-wound aviation watches aimed specifically at flyers.

By the early 1950s, only the King remained, and it has stayed in production ever since, with only a two year interruption between 2014 and 2016 for some well deserved R&R.

A Rolex Air-King in stainless steel
A Rolex Air-King in stainless steel

Until its latest iteration it has been available in a range of sizes; 31mm, 34mm and 36mm (as well as a short-lived 35mm model which had the addition of a date complication)—a variety that has made it a popular if modestly understated choice for both men and women.

As is the way with Rolex, it has been subjected to a number of updates during its six decades, but with the Air-King all the major modernizations have been on the inside. The calibers have been systematically improved, but have always lagged behind the rest of the catalog. It didn’t receive its first high-beat movement until 2000 with the ref. 14000, for example, and its first COSC-rating a further seven years after that.

The latest generation is a blend of modern and vintage. Sharing a case setup with the Milgauss, actually two cases one inside the other to protect the mechanism from the harmful effects of magnetic fields, the new 40mm Air-King harks back to the past with its signature font straight out of the 1950s, as well as the traditional Explorer-esque 3/6/9 hour indexes. Possibly the most easily readable dial of them all, it is the only piece in the current range with numerals every five minutes.

Rolex’s first foray into the world of aviation, the Air-King is a cult classic that is becoming more and more collectible.

The Rolex GMT-Master/GMT-Master II

Where would we be without the GMT-Master? The model that pioneered the concept of a dual time zone watch, it did for long haul travelers in the fifties what the Submariner did for underwater explorers.

Developed in conjunction with Pan Am to help their crews with the novel phenomenon of jetlag as the new transatlantic routes opened up, the complicated looking arrangement was actually simplicity itself.

With the addition of a second hour hand, geared to run at half the speed of the main hand, coupled with an engraved rotatable bezel taken straight from the Turn-O-Graph released a year before, Rolex created a watch that could keep track of the time in two places at once.  

In a stylistic flourish that would become both the GMT’s signature and major selling point, the surround was painted in contrasting colors to simulate night and day—the one that started it all, the ref. 6542, was released in red and blue, quickly nicknamed the Pepsi.

A Rolex GMT Pepsi
A Rolex GMT Pepsi

It is a watch that rivals its diving cousin in the popularity stakes, inspiring copycat designs from every corner and still one of the biggest selling offerings from the brand to this day.

Where the Air-King has always been


utilitarian tool watch, presented in a choice of steel or nothing, the GMT-Master has been cast in a range of precious metal finery over the years. Forged in every flavor of gold, along with Rolex’s own Rolesor half and half, it has also been issued with a series of one and two-tone bezels to appeal to the widest possible audience.

As well as a solid black option and the aforementioned Pepsi, you will find the black and red ‘Coke’ version on the vintage market (surely overdue a reissue) along with the ‘Root Beer’—either the brown and gold style from the seventies or the nostalgia-heavy black and brown released this year. Topping off the modern collection is the Batman in blue and black, the first time a bi-color effect was used on the brand’s proprietary Cerachrom.

GMT Master II Batman
GMT Master II Batman

Whether you are tempted by the classic GMT-Master or a brand new GMT-Master II, it remains an out-and-out emblem for Rolex; an instantly discernible masterpiece that just happens to be one of the most everyday useful and capable aviation watches ever made. 

The Rolex Sky-Dweller

The latest all new addition to the stable and one that has split opinion since its launch, the Sky-Dweller continues Rolex’s recent venture into the world of ultra complications that started with the Yacht-Master II.

By far the most luxurious of the three aviation-inspired models, the Sky-Dweller is a vastly different take on the concept of a dual time zone watch than the GMT-Master. Where that piece goes the clean, uncomplicated route, this latest example is unashamedly involved, presenting not only a GMT function but also an annual calendar.

The Rolex Sky-Dweller is the newest in their line of aviation watches
The Rolex Sky-Dweller is the newest in their line of aviation watches

It is a lot of information to display on a mechanical watch with no pushers, no bezel engraving and just an hour, minute and seconds hand and has led to an aesthetic that many of the faithful have found particularly challenging. But while it may be a world away from their traditional design language, Rolex, as always, has found the most economical and efficient way around a multifaceted problem.   

The element that many have found especially divisive is the GMT disc itself, an unorthodox off-center sub dial that decapitates the lower hour markers.

Marked with a 24-hour track, it is the part that remains set to home time while on your travels, with the red inverse triangle above it pointing out the correct hour.

As far as readability goes, it outshines the GMT-Master’s second hour hand, but visually it takes some getting used to.

The main dial is for the local time, with a date, complete with Cyclops, at three o’clock. However, the Sky-Dweller’s real party piece lies just over each hour index. A small cutout aperture relates to the month of the year, with the current one represented by the window blocked in a different color. So a filled-in opening above the six o’clock marker reads June, seven o’clock is July, etc.

It is Rolex’s first ever annual calendar complication (i.e. only needs manual advancing every February) and it is a beautifully elegant solution.

The Sky-Dweller is one of the more versatile tool watches Rolex carries
The Sky-Dweller is one of the more elegant aviation watches Rolex carries

The key to controlling all this progressive technology is an updated version of the brand’s patented Ring Command Bezel that we first saw, again, on the Yacht-Master II. But where the one on the skipper’s watch was essentially an on/off switch, the Sky-Dweller’s surround is even more complex and allows for all the different functions to be adjusted using only the crown.

Each quarter turn of the bezel (fluted on each of the 15 variations) unlocks a different operation. The first position is for changing the date. Another turn lets you set the local time and finally, the last setting synchs all of the functions to allow the reference time in the sub dial to be fixed.

It means there is no need for any additional buttons to ruin the profile of the 42mm case, underlining its position as a dress watch for luxury travelers; a Day-Date with a GMT function.

Originally only available in one of Rolex’s three golds, the latest in the series have been released in steel and white gold variants. Still by no means an inexpensive watch, but at least now a little more attainable.  

Rolex’s Aviation Watches

Rolex’s range of aviation watches covers the entire spectrum of functionality and price. From the austere elegance of the Air-King to the brilliant ingenuity of the Sky-Dweller, via the GMT-Master’s unmistakable styling, there is a perfect fit for every discerning flyer.

Check out our online store for the very best in pre-owned examples.

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Paul Altieri