Although there is a multitude of brands across the watch industry with a deep connection to aviation, only one marque actually has the right to use the term “Pilot” for its models: Zenith. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that the Pilot line is deeply ingrained in the brand’s DNA, even if it tends to be overshadowed by series like the El Primero and the Defy in enthusiast circles. As part of its Watches and Wonders 2023 novelties, however, Zenith has completely overhauled the Pilot line from the ground up, creating a more contemporary, sporty new look for the long-running pilot’s watch family. The new Zenith Pilot series, including the Zenith Pilot Automatic and the Zenith Pilot Big Date Flyback, drastically reimagines the brand’s pilot’s watch concept with luxe new touches, clean lines, and a function-forward new philosophy.
Despite their different sizes at 40mm-wide and 42.5mm-wide, respectively, the new Zenith Pilot Automatic and the Zenith Pilot Big Date Flyback share an all-new case design. This new case silhouette drastically shifts away from the quirky, early 20th century-inspired case of the previous-generation Pilot, instead offering a more athletic, contemporary tool watch ethos. The broad tapering lugs, flowing case side chamfers, and broad, flat chamfered bezel all work to create a clean, familiar sporting form, although the two available case materials cast this design in two distinct lights in images. The traditional stainless steel option gives both models a bright, handsome mix of brushed and polished surfaces for an upscale yet sporty look, but it’s the black ceramic case option that truly makes the new Pilot series feel contemporary. This fully matte-black case gives both watches a stealthy, military equipment-esque feel in images, which plays well with the line’s tool watch design philosophy. Both the Pilot Automatic and the Pilot Big Date Flyback are fitted with sapphire display casebacks, and both models are rated for a respectable 100 meters of water resistance.
Although the new cases of the Zenith Pilot series draw heavily from the standard modern pilot’s watch template, the dials of both the Pilot Automatic and the Pilot Big Date Flyback offer more of a unique personality in initial photos. The most distinctive feature here is the gloss black dial surface itself, which adds a raised horizontal ribbed texture inspired by the corrugated aluminum fuselages of early airplanes (for example the Ford Trimotor or the Junkers Ju 52). It’s a luxe, aviation-inspired touch to an otherwise simple design, harkening back visually to both the famous engraved “deck plank” dial of the Patek Philippe Nautilus as well as Rimowa’s sought-after ribbed aluminum luggage in images. The rest of the base dial design is sharp and functional, with clean applied sans serif Arabic hours numerals and partially blacked-out flieger-style hands. While both case variants of the Pilot Automatic keep this layout simple and balanced with a 6 o’clock date window deftly placed beneath the horizontal lozenge index, the Pilot Big Date Flyback offers two distinct dial variants.
The black ceramic case model is the more straightforward of the two, with a monochrome look and a pair of large, airy subdials at 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock above a rounded big date display at 6 o’clock. For the stainless steel Pilot Big Date Flyback, Zenith instead offers a slick modern reinterpretation of the fan-favorite ‘90s-era El Primero Rainbow Flyback Chronograph. Like that neo-vintage model, the Pilot Big Date Flyback offers a Speedmaster-like spear-tipped central chronograph seconds hand in vivid red, along with a matching red flieger hand for the 3 o’clock chronograph minutes subdial. The subdial itself is the clearest homage to the Rainbow, with a slender outer accent ring with sectors in green, yellow, and blue to match its ‘90s forebear. It’s not the most obvious design in Zenith’s back catalog to replicate, or the most obvious visual tribute, but this subtle visual echo should prove popular among the Zenith faithful.
Zenith powers the Pilot Automatic and the Pilot Big Date Flyback with a pair of in-house movements – the El Primero 3620 and the El Primero 3652, respectively. The El Primero 3620 automatic movement inside the Zenith Pilot Automatic is a relatively new addition to the brand’s stable and is substantially modified here from its prior appearance in the Defy Skyline series. That model’s signature 10-second funning subdial is gone for the Pilot Automatic, replaced with a more conventional central hand with a typical 60-second sweep. Visually, the El Primero 3620 has also undergone a slate of changes in images. The previous star-shaped rotor has been dropped in favor of a more heavily skeletonized, black-coated rotor design, featuring arabesque brushing and an artificial horizon motif. Finishing across the rest of the movement is sharp and modern, with deep brushing across the three-quarter plates and balance cock above blued screws and a matte blasted mainplate. In terms of performance, the El Primero 3620 is impressively robust, with a 60-hour power reserve and the El Primero family’s signature ultra-smooth 36,000 bph beat rate.
The El Primero 3652 automatic flyback chronograph movement inside the Zenith Pilot Big Date Flyback is a new reference designed specifically for this model. The finishing for this movement is markedly different from its three-hand counterpart, with arabesque brushing across each of the skeleton bridges along with blued screws and a blued column wheel, but the El Primero 3620’s blacked-out rotor design does reappear here. Performance-wise, this new movement offers similar figures to its counterpart, with a 60-hour power reserve at a 36,00 bph beat rate. Each new model in the Zenith Pilot series is paired with a black cordura-effect rubber strap. Additionally, each stainless steel model also receives a classic brown leather strap, while black ceramic models are packaged with an extra cordura-effect strap in khaki green.
The new Zenith Pilot series represents a nearly clean break from previous iterations of the line, but both the new Zenith Pilot Automatic and the Zenith Pilot Big Date Flyback should prove to be crowd-pleasers thanks to their clean functional looks, intriguing new complications, contemporary design philosophy, and subtle nods to previous Zenith references. Both the Zenith Pilot Automatic and the Zenith Pilot Big Date Flyback are available now through authorized dealers. Starting MSRP for the Zenith Pilot Automatic stands at $7,500 USD as of press time, while pricing for the Zenith Pilot Big Date Flyback begins at $11,500 USD. For more information, please visit the brand’s website.