The first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air flight by the Wright brothers on 17 December 1903 covered a mere 40 metres, flying just a couple of feet above ground, with Orville Wright, spread-eagled across the lower wing of the biplane, functioning as the world’s first aeroplane pilot.

News of this achievement was met with disbelief across the Atlantic Ocean almost to the point of scorn. Only when the Wright brothers repeated a flight on French soil in 1908, one year before French aviation pioneer Louis Blériot crossed the English channel by aeroplane wearing a Zenith timepiece, were the detractors forced to apologise for their scathing criticism.

Much more significant than the Wright brothers’ first flight itself, however, were the principles that the brothers had developed for controlling any fixed-wing aircraft, starting with the gliders that they launched on the Kitty Hawk sands in North Carolina. Based on controlling the aircraft along three axes – pitch, roll and yaw – they remain the basic principles for controlling fixed-wing aircraft to this day.

A vintage Zenith cockpit clock

A vintage Zenith cockpit clock © Zenith

The development of aviation created an entirely new market for flight instruments, in which Zenith was one of the early pioneers. Using the same proven technology that helped its pocket watches withstand vibrations and magnetic fields, the brand was one of the first to supply altimeters, on-board clocks and chronographs to equip early aircraft.

As the field of manned flight evolved, it made its mark on the history of wristwatches. Genuine wristwatches (rather than pocket watches that had merely been adapted to wear on the wrist) had only been around for a couple of years at the time and were quickly adapted for use by early pilots. The key requirements: a clear dial, ideally black to avoid reflections, a large crown that could be manipulated wearing gloves and, of course, a reliable mechanical movement to ensure precision timekeeping.

The new Zenith Pilot Type 20 GMT 1903 is the perfect example of such a watch. But despite its vintage look, it is a timepiece of the 21st century with the technology to match. Part of a collection that is still going strong some 75 years after it was fitted to the instrument panels of aircraft such as the Caudron trainer planes used by the French air force, this new limited-edition model pays tribute to the Wright brothers who started it all over a century ago.

The Zenith Pilot Type 20 GMT 1903

The Zenith Pilot Type 20 GMT 1903 © Zenith

It recreates the look of its vintage predecessors using a DLC-coated titanium case with an imposing 48mm diameter, in which an unusually high level of detail has been applied to creating an original vintage look. The black dial is sandblasted five times and the period Arabic numerals are given an “old radium” treatment before the more modern coating of SuperLuminova is applied. The same treatment is applied to the black ruthenium hands and the distinctive pattern of apparent ageing that this creates is unique to each individual watch.

Precision timekeeping is ensured by the Zenith Elite 693 self-winding movement, which runs at 28,800 vibrations per hour and offers a power reserve of at least 50 hours. It drives the central hour and minute hands and a small seconds indication at 9 o’clock on the dial. An additional central GMT hand offers a handy reference for the modern pilot or traveller and is easily adjusted using a large pushbutton at 10 o’clock. Beneath this pushbutton, on the side of the case, a plate bearing the individual number of the limited edition is screwed on to the case middle. Only 1,903 units of this piece will be available, commemorating the year of the Wright brothers’ flight.

A bund-style strap in brown nubuck leather perfectly underscores the pilot watch credentials of this piece and has a lining that is heat-embossed with the “Zenith Flying Instruments” logo, the same found on the case-back.

After Felix Baumgartner jumped from a balloon on the edge of space to free-fall back to Earth wearing a Zenith timepiece less than two years ago, the brand now comes full circle with this admirable tribute to the early daredevils in aviation history.