When you think about divers’ watches, the first one that inevitably comes to mnd is the Rolex Submariner and when you think of racer watches, the Cosmograph Daytona is probably the first one you picture. However, something you probably don’t associate Rolex with is air travel, in particular pilots. Even though from the early 50s Rolex has been developing watches for a wide range of professionals, including pilots of aircrafts. This lack of recognition probably comes from the fact that popular culture hasn’t shone a particular light on aviation watches as it has with other professions. So, you may not know that the manufacturer has a long illustrated history with air travel, dating back to events like WWII where it was a supplier to the Royal Air Force.
Rolex’s affiliation with air travel far predates this time though, as RAF aviators would be issued with Rolex Speedkings, however, the small size of the chronograph made them hard to read. This continued to be the norm until veteran pilots started to invest in Rolex Oyster Perpetual watches as the readability is better, which lead Rolex to eventually create models like the Air Lion and Air Giant and the illustrious Air-King.
As society moved towards the post-industrial era we began to make enormous progress in aircraft performance and with that came longer journey and distance records. An early pioneer, Charles Douglas Barnard, set a number of those flight records with his Rolex Oyster on his wrist. He even commented, “The peculiar qualities of this Rolex watch render it eminently suitable for flying purposes, and I propose to use it on all my long-distance flights in the future.”
The Oyster gained more fame when it accompanied the Houston Expedition when the team made the first-ever flight over Mount Everest at an altitude over 10,000m (33,000ft) in extreme weather conditions. While in 1934, Owen Cathcart-Jones and Ken Waller set a world record for the return voyage from London to Melbourne in a De Havilland Comet carrying Rolex Oysters as their on-board chronometers.
The Rolex Air-King has seen over 70 years of almost continuous production and has been available in 31mm, 34mm and 35mm case sizes and was first introduced in 1945. The smaller sizes were available through the early 2000s while today they are only available in a 40mm case size. This means that the only Rolex’s available in the sub-40mm range are the Explorer I and Oyster Perpetual.