Tuesday, March 08, 2022

A Pilot Explains the Rolex Air-King


I bought the Rolex Air-King in December 2016, the year the watch came out. Though it was my first new Rolex, I waited until January 13, 2017, to put it on my wrist. I woke up that morning in a Hilton downtown Portland, Oregon. And I opened the watch box. The plastic protective cover was still on the shiny bezel. In an hour, I would be picked up from the hotel and driven to PDX airport.

I waited until that day because I'd be crossing the Pacific for the first time in my life as the First Officer of a Delta Air Lines Boeing 767. I had flown to Honolulu multiple times before, but this 10h46 flight from Portland to Tokyo would be my first transpacific, the crossing of the largest ocean in the world. And the first flight for my Air-King. I strapped it on my wrist, and smiled.

As I review my logbook today, I can see that we pushed back at 1202 local and landed at 1548 on January 14. I then flew from Narita to Singapore after a 24-hour layover in Tokyo, a flight that took 7h52. My rotation lasted 10 days. I would cross the Pacific many more times with an Air-King on my wrist before I'd decide to switch to the Atlantic theater and its many beautiful European destinations.

The Air-King is an important tool watch for a pilot: The Air-King has a minute dial, which is a very rare find on a watch. It is the first Rolex with such a dial. Those dials were usually found in ships, particularly in the radio rooms for wireless operators and in the cabins of early military aircraft.

For an airline pilot, whose departure time changes with every leg, the Air-King is a great piece of equipment. A departure rarely starts exactly on the hour. If our pushback time is at minute 26, we can easily spot it by looking at the 5, 10, 20, 25, etc., markings of the dial. The Air-King makes it so easy to spot minute 26 that there will be no errors... it is a precise indication. And it is very useful when you fly multiple legs a day with different departure times.

No watch emphasizes the minute marking like the Air-King. And for pilots preparing for departure and arrival times, that is key. We need to spot quickly where we are in the departure sequence. From check-in to preflight to the loading of fuel, cargo and the boarding of passengers, every departure is a ballet orchestrated to the minute. 

The dial's white-on-black contrast, which is typical on all military pilot watches, also helps with excellent readability as I fling my wrist to look at the time between checklists, flight plan and weather reports, aircraft and systems configuration manuals. In the departure sequence, every minute counts and should be easily spotted. 

After we push back, we are often assigned an Expected Departure Clearance Time (EDCT), or "wheels-up" time to the minute. That slot is our sequence in the crowded controlled airspace, and I pace my taxi accordingly. It means we have to be at the end of the runway ready for takeoff before that minute or we lose our departure clearance. 

In short, to complain that the Air-King's dial is too busy is to not understand the Air-King. It would be like complaining that the Submariner's dial has no numbers. Still, if you look at the 12, 3, 6, 9 of the Air-King, it is also an hour watch.


Finally, as cockpits today are no longer equipped with round dials but are filled with electronics that tend to create magnetic fields, the Air-King is as anti-magnetic as the Milgauss. My Rolex Submariner 16613 was magnetized twice in the cockpit. I never had a problem with the Air-King; it has the most anti-magnetic properties available by Rolex.

The Air-King is a unique piece of horology, the kind of purpose-driven tool that has helped cement Rolex's reputation in the past. In this pilot's opinion, it is the best innovation and the best tool watch to be made by Rolex in the last 20 years. 

And once my destination reached, the watch's 100m water resistance is perfect for a quick swim in the Pacific!