Within the world of the small pilot’s chronograph, the Benrus Sky Chief is king. Ok, that’s a bold statement, but I think there’s some merit behind it. I read a decent number of forums and ingest all sorts of vintage watch-related social media, and something has always stood out to me about the Sky Chief; there are very few apologists about the watch despite its diminutive size. Well, I had only seen one of these in person before in a large case of other vintage chronographs and it did look small. In the end, though, I decided that this Benrus was historically significant enough to add to my collection and, therefore, when the right piece popped up, I grabbed it. Since it’s now holiday season, this also marks the time of year when so many people are traveling through the skies to see family or to go on vacation. With that, buckle up, spool up the engines, and get ready for takeoff; it’s #TBT time and we’re hitting the skies with the Benrus Sky Chief chronograph.
The Benrus Sky Chief, a Big (Little) Watch
Let’s just get this out of the way because I’ve already made a big deal about it; the Benrus Sky Chief is 35mm in diameter. If, by chance, you’re still relatively new in the watch game and watch sizes don’t register with you, a piece such as the original Heuer Carrera 2447 comes in at 36mm. Now, I’ve never been great with imagining watch sizes in my head, but a 1mm difference doesn’t sound like a lot. Oh, if only that weren’t the case… There are actually a host of attractive chronographs out there that ring it at 35mm and they receive interest, but they lag the market in interest and value due to this size. Examples? I’m talking about great looking pieces such as the early Tissot chronographs (even smaller!) and, prominently, the Omega 321-powered Seamaster chronographs. The Omegas, in particular, feature some stunning designs but are often passed over by all but the hardcore collectors or those like myself with smaller wrists. Still, though, I’ve even become accustomed to larger watches. So, why do I say that the Sky Chief largely escapes criticism? Well, it’s a good question, but like in so many situations, judgment is passed on this watch due to the sum of its parts.
A chronograph with real aviation history
The Benrus Sky Chief was introduced in the 1940’s from the NYC-based company as a pilot’s watch and the company ultimately ended up as an official supplier to several commercial airlines. In fact, many pieces can be found today with case backs showing them as official property of one airline or another. (Some information may be found here.) Larger chronographs certainly existed in the 1940’s, but they certainly weren’t the norm. So, the first attribute of this watch is that it did find itself in the employ of actual pilots. Granted, they weren’t dogfighting, but they were utilizing the watches as a tool – we’ll talk about that in a minute. Second, and this is really the key, the Sky Chief is a chunky chronograph and if it doesn’t look as large as a 36mm watch, it looks a little bigger than 35mm.
The Benrus Sky Chief is a thick nugget of a watch
When I refer to the Benrus Sky Chief as chunky, what does this mean? Well, a side-glance explains it best because it’s almost like viewing a macaron! The case of this watch with the Napoleon Complex is broken up into 4 parts. I’ll start with the most prominent piece and that’s the impossibly steep, overly tall polished bezel.
It’s very extreme, but gives the watch a lot of thickness. Combine this with a thick, domed acrylic crystal, a beefy, brushed case and a rounded snap back case back and you have a rather tall piece.
Let’s also not overlook the drilled lugholes that allow for easy strap changes. This small detail serves as a reminder of the watch’s tool intentions.
The Benrus Sky Chief is a classic Pilot’s Chronograph
Flip the Benrus Sky Chief over so that it’s dial side up and this vertically thick case manages to provide more than decent size on the wrist. Of course, it helps that the tall bezel looks very narrow from above and gives the impression that there’s very little between the edge of the dial and the outside world. Also, substantial lugs from overhead help extend the reach of the watch to roughly 43mm. Finally, you have nicely weighted flat pushers and a nicely sized winding crown (mine has been replaced but will soon go back to its more plain self) on the right side of the watch. I should note that I usually keep away from chronographs with flat pushers because I don’t find them to be so sporty. In this case, though, I like the pushers and I think they flow well with the case shape.
When we come to the dial, we’re met with a triple register, glossy black dial. It’s notable for its applied radium luminous Arabic numerals at the hours and a healthy dose of white printing for everything from the name, registers and minutes track around the edge of the dial. The hands are the archetypal lume-filled syringes paired with a white needle-like central chronograph hand. When all is said and done, the Benrus Sky Chief looks like the definition of a pilot’s watch: clear, bold and purposeful.
Looking a bit deeper, the glossy dial is really beautiful and the hourly numerals are also attractive despite a lot of patina. After all, and if you hunt for one of these you’ll have to get used to patina, these watches had the water resistance of a sheet of paper.
The other thing I notice with these watches is that the white printing, upon closer inspection, is actually a bit handmade looking. I wouldn’t call it rough, but it’s certainly of a more antiquated method when comparing to most of my 1960’s pieces. Aside from the general aesthetic, though, what makes the Sky Chief a pilot’s watch?
The details make the Sky Chief functionally interesting
It’s an interesting question about why the Sky Chief is a pilot’s watch when it’s really just a basic triple register chronograph. Well, not so fast. First off, in doing some research for the article, I came to find that a 12-hour register was something of a new luxury in the early to mid 1940’s and was obviously helpful for timing flights. Also, and this takes a keen eye, you’ll notice longer hash lines at the 4/8/12 minute marks on the minute totalizer. This is certainly different than most chronographs that apparently featured hashes at 3/6/9 for the supposed purpose of measuring a call at a pay phone. So, why mark off 4/8/12? Apparently, in the early days of flying, there was a higher likelihood of using celestial navigation and taking a measurement every 4 minutes was necessary…check out this post for more background. Interesting, right?
Compare this to the 15-minute totalizer used on the Breitling 765CP to track the readiness a pilot supposedly needed to get his engines warm and you can see that watches were being used for all sorts of real purposes 50-75 years ago.
Movements? There were several…
Regarding the movement found in the Benrus Sky Chief, the company was similar to several such as Breitling or Gallet because they used more than one movement during the watch’s production run. In its earliest execution, as seen within this article, the Sky Chief featured the venerable Venus 178 column wheel chronograph. Yes, this is the same movement most typically found within Breitling’s chronographs. There’s not too much to say about it here that hasn’t been said before other than the fact that it has no shock protection. Later, Benrus switched to both the Valjoux 71 and 72. (Click here for a nice overview on the models and movements.) In black dial guise, the watches look identical aside from the trademark non-equidistant pusher spacing found on the Valjoux movements. Finally, while we are talking about variations, Benrus made a Sky Chief with a white dial that featured a coin-edged rotating outer bezel with an inner arrow to mark time. It’s a good-looking watch in its own right (and larger at roughly 37mm), but the black versions are somehow the most well known. A Valjoux 72C – triple date version was also made with the Sky Chief name on the dial and these come up for sale from time to time.
Can you wear a smaller watch? Yes!!
I started this article talking about how the Benrus Sky Chief is a but like the “little engine that could” and I really do feel that way. It’s very wearable and not just because it’s small and can fit under everything and anything. No, the Benrus does stand out because of its design and thickness. I actually get a lot of compliments on this watch because it looks old in a classic way and it has a lot of styling traits that even non-watch people look for in a chronograph. The dark dial with heaps of patina and stainless case make it appropriate to pair with about any type of clothing and most straps. Feeling patriotic? Throw it on some sort of a brightly colored NATO strap? Want to dress it up? It looks great on anything reptilian.
For me, though, I’m enjoying it on this sand-colored leather NATO that I picked up from Andreas (mylocaltime).
The Sky Chief is an affordable piece of history
Similar to the story on most vintage chronographs today, finding a Benrus Sky Chief has become slightly more difficult, but they still do show up frequently on places like eBay and in some of the traditional watch forums. While some people can’t live with the smallish size, many people are always hunting for good pieces. The Sky Chief is one of those chronographs that most die-hard collectors feel belongs in every collection because of its history. Therefore, it’s not surprising that good ones go fast. On the other hand, bad ones – and there are many –languish on the market normally because they are attached to ridiculous prices. A good, black-dial Sky Chief usually runs from about $1,200 – 2,000 and at the top end, it needs to be primo. Like I said, a lot of these pieces show serious wear to the dials, so do your homework to ensure that the dial hasn’t been repaired, repainted, or is giving evidence of catastrophic water entry. Parts such as dials do show up from time to time, but I think the pricing of this watch suggests waiting for the right piece to show itself on the market. Repairs, thankfully, are relatively simple due to the popular movements.
If you’ve been contemplating the purchase of a Benrus Sky Chief, but have always been put off due to the size, I’d tell you to hunt down a nice one at a fair price. I actually think that you’ll end up being surprised by the way it looks on the wrist. In the worst case, they’re easy watches to sell and only seem to be appreciating in value. Like I said, the Sky Chief is a historically important watch that was often found on the wrist of pilots during the boom in commercial aviation. Sure, it’s relatively simple, but I find it charming in that way. Until next week…