Bye-Bye, Vintage: The New Zenith Pilot Automatic And Pilot Big Date Flyback
If you love aviation timepieces, you’ll likely know that Zenith is the only brand that can use the word “Pilot” on a watch dial. In 1904, Zenith trademarked the English term, and the Le Locle brand certainly has not let it go to waste. In 1909, a Zenith watch cemented the brand’s place in history, accompanying Louis Blériot on humankind’s first flight across the English Channel. And with a nearly ever-present lineup of pilot’s watches in its catalog, Zenith has upheld its reputation in the genre ever since. That does not mean, however, that the watches always looked alike. The Zenith Pilot line has seen many variations through the years, and most recently, it had a distinct early-1900s aesthetic. Today, Zenith bids farewell to cathedral hands, skinny lugs, and onion crowns, turning its eyes to the horizon. These are the new Zenith Pilot Automatic and Pilot Big Date Flyback.
Before we discover these new watches, I must admit that I’m sad to see the vintage styling go. The previous Pilot line spoke to me in a way that few watches do, even if I never found a model that fit me perfectly. In the last few years, we haven’t seen much emphasis on the Pilot collection, and I gave my thoughts on how Zenith could improve it in 2021. But as an industry rookie naively speaking from the heart, I concede that I wasn’t qualified to make that call. Clearly, the Pilot line needed more drastic changes than a different case size and materials to make it hot again. And while I don’t love these new models as much, I’m extremely interested to see how the market will react. Now, let’s discover the Zenith Pilot Automatic and Pilot Big Date Flyback and see if Zenith has nailed the formula!
Zenith Pilot Automatic
Zenith is bringing vitality to the Pilot line through four new references, comprising three-hand and chronograph models in stainless steel and ceramic. First up is the more basic Pilot Automatic, which lays the groundwork for the line’s new design language. The previous models’ painted Gothic numerals and cathedral hands make way for modern applied Arabic numerals and high-contrast sword hands. Both have a generous filling of Super-LumiNova and sit atop a black opaline dial with horizontal grooves. Zenith says that this pattern “mimics the look of corrugated metal sheets that make up the fuselage of many older aircraft.” Having googled a bit, I can definitely see that connection. At 6 o’clock, we have a white-on-black date indicator and a horizontal index to help with orientation in the dark. Above those, we see the trademarked “Pilot” designation, counterbalancing the Zenith signature and star on the dial’s upper half.
Moving on to the cases, we see a radical difference between these and the previous Zenith Pilots. While the Type 20 cases were fully circular with wire-like lugs, these are more akin to a modern-day “Flieger” case. That said, they appear flatter than an IWC Mark XX, for example. This is due to the substantial bezel and wide lugs. On the steel version, the surfaces have a vertically brushed finish with high-polished chamfers on the lugs and the bezel. Its ceramic counterpart, however, has an all-matte blasted finish for a stealthy aesthetic with the black case material. These 100m-water-resistant cases measure 40mm wide, 49.6mm long, and 12.9mm thick, including the domed crystal. The newly designed crown looks rather nice with its diamond-like shape and deep notches. Though not as bulbous (or charming) as the previous onion crown, I’m sure it will be easy to grip and manipulate.
The movement, straps, and pricing
Powering the Zenith Pilot Automatic is the 27-jewel manufacture El Primero 3620 movement. This is the same chronograph-less El Primero caliber that powers the Defy Skyline — well, by name, anyway. Though it carries the same caliber number, this one forgoes the small 10-second register in favor of standard central seconds. However, like all El Primero movements, it beats at a speedy 36,000vph frequency, and it also offers a 60-hour power reserve. The no-frills finishing is rather straightforward, with straight graining and a black open-worked rotor. The white design on the rotor recalls the famous and indispensable “artificial horizon” instrument in aircraft. Further visual highlights include the chameleonic silicon pallet fork and escape wheel, which change from green to blue to purple, depending on the viewing angle. They also reduce friction and energy loss, helping keep the movement ticking efficiently.
Both the stainless steel and ceramic versions of the Pilot Automatic will come with two 20mm straps. The first, which accompanies both models, is black rubber with a Cordura-like texture and a push-button dual-deployant clasp. For the ceramic Pilot Automatic, the steel clasp has a black PVD treatment, and the second rubber strap comes in a nice khaki green. Fittingly, the steel version has a matching steel clasp, and the second strap is made of dark brown calf leather. Quick-release buttons on both straps make them easy to swap, though you may want to get a spare buckle.
Zenith Pilot Automatic — Pricing
The Zenith Pilot Automatic in stainless steel will retail for CHF 7,500. Its ceramic counterpart will have a price of CHF 9,500, which may be worth it for those seeking lightness and scratch resistance.
Zenith Pilot Big Date Flyback
Now we get to the really fun stuff! Nobody does chronographs quite like Zenith, and the brand brings the heat with this high-beat caliber with a big date and flyback function. The styling of these models is similar to the Pilot Automatic, so I won’t spend much time on the similarities. I will highlight the substantive differences, though, starting with the most obvious one — the layout. Here, we have a dual-register chronograph dial with a 30-minute counter at 3 o’clock and running seconds at 9. The sub-dials are quite massive and therefore cut into the 2, 4, 8, and 10 numerals a bit. While some may bemoan that decision, I’m sure we’ll all agree that putting lume dots next to the sub-dials was a good choice.
A glorious big date window sits slightly above 6 o’clock. The first thing that came to mind when I saw this was the Pilot Big Date Special from 2012. This time, though, the date discs have a more “integrated” look, almost like Glashütte Original’s Panorama date display. To me, this model picks up where the 2012 model left off before Zenith switched to the vintage Pilot style in 2013.
Another noteworthy throwback is the extra chronograph functionality and color scheme of the Rainbow Flyback from 1997. My colleague Lex loves that watch and predicted its comeback this year. While neither he nor I envisioned such a radical overhaul, I am still ecstatic to see it return in some form.
The same but different
As with the three-handers, the Zenith Pilot Big Date Flyback is available in both stainless steel and ceramic. Each comes with the same 20mm straps as its simpler counterpart, and the respective case finishing is identical too. The big differences lie in the addition of rectangular pushers and a larger case to house the added complexity. These chronographs measure 42.5mm wide, 51.4mm long, and 14.3mm thick (2mm of which is the crystal). While that’s large for my 17cm (~6.75″) wrist, the steel version would easily be my pick of the bunch. The searing red chronograph hands and the green, yellow, and blue highlights give this one the greatest impact, hands down. This nod to the Rainbow Flyback, a cult classic of sorts, is also a perfect way to celebrate the flyback function’s return.
Making its debut in the Pilot Big Date Flyback is the El Primero 3652 movement. It features the same 5Hz frequency and 60-hour power reserve as the three-hand 3620, but it is much more complex. The 30-minute chronograph utilizes a column wheel for crisp action and a lateral clutch for aesthetically pleasing construction. Of course, the additional flyback function lets you time consecutive events without stopping, resetting, and restarting the chronograph. Simply press the bottom pusher while timing to instantaneously restart the chronograph from zero. Another instantaneous feature is the changing of the big date. The two discs take a mere 0.02 seconds to jump and stabilize themselves — blink and you’ll miss it! This caliber also features a silicon pallet fork and escape wheel, an open-worked rotor, and more extensive grained finishing.
Zenith Pilot Big Date Flyback — Pricing and final thoughts
The Pilot Big Date Flyback in stainless steel will retail for CHF 11,400. As with the three-hand model, there is a premium for the ceramic version, which has a price of CHF 13,400. With the larger case size, its lightweight construction could indeed make this model wearable for more people.
But as I said, the steel Rainbow Flyback tribute takes the cake for me. I’ll be interested to hear what you think about it in the comments, as well as your thoughts on Zenith taking the Pilot line in this direction. Do you prefer the vintage style that we saw from 2013 to 2022? Or was it too extreme and inappropriate for this day and age? I’m all ears, Fratelli, so sound off down below! And to find out more about these new models, visit Zenith’s website.
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