In the 1940s, watches made by Benrus were flying off the shelves… literally.
And among them, the best-known is this watch: the Sky Chief, perhaps one of the most perfect pilot’s watches ever made.
Starting in the 1920s, Benrus released watches like the Benrus Airman, which was used by pilots of the National Air Transport Company—the first airline to operate cross-country flights.
The relationship between Benrus and aviation did not end there; in fact, it was only solidified as Benrus continued to produce watches tailor-made to the needs of pilots.
The Sky Chief, introduced in 1940, is without a doubt the brand’s most famous chronograph. Though it was released in several variations (including triple-date models), it’s the pilot’s version that’s become the most iconic. At first glance, it’s a tool watch, looking much like the chronographs worn by the world’s air forces.
Deceptively small at 35mm, its overall wrist presence is increased by a thick, beefy case with long, drilled lugs. The dial—a glossy, inky black—has gilt Arabic numerals liberally coated with radium. The three chronograph registers are evenly-spaced and easy-to-read, which is absolutely crucial in a darkened airplane cockpit.
And when one takes a closer look at the dial, particularly the elongated hash marks in the minute totalizer at 3 o’clock, one realizes that these little details unite to form a watch that’s as practical as it is beautiful.
In those days, radio navigation systems were still in their infancy, so pilots took measurements the old-fashioned way: dead reckoning. Navigation tables advised that readings should be taken every one to four minutes, using the angle of the sun (or certain stars, such as Polaris, at night) between the horizon to gauge the airplane’s position. Benrus designed the Sky Chief with that need in mind, a thoughtful touch that proves how in-tune Benrus was with the needs of its customers.
The Benrus Sky Chief was beloved of pilots across the airline industry—from NWA, TWA, to Delta or KLM—leading Benrus to adopt the slogan “Official Watch of Famous Airlines.”
Internally, the Sky Chief was powered by several different movements throughout its run. In its early days, it used the column wheel Venus 178, a redoubtable hand-cranker that would see its glory years in Breitling’s Navitimer. But when Breitling monopolized all available examples of the calibre, Benrus switched to the Valjoux 71 or Valjoux 72 column-wheel chronograph movements.
As the presence of the square pushers attests, water-resistance wasn’t Benrus’s chief concern when designing the Sky Chief. Therefore, surviving examples often show signs of slight water damage, making the dial turn a chocolate brown or “tropical.” Such is the case with this particular watch, whose dial has taken on a gorgeous chocolate brown hue over time.
Though some may balk at the compact size of the watch, it truly wears larger, thanks to the long lugs. For something as versatile as it is practical, the Sky Chief slips easily under a cuff, and looks excellent on any strap one can think to put it on. Whether you’re a pilot or a frequent flyer, this Sky Chief is ready to take to the air.
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