Breguet has its Types XX, XXI, XXII, and Blancpain has the Air Command, a watch that, like the Breguet pilot’s watch, was a response to a French Ministry of Defence commission for a flyback chronograph. It was also offered to the United States Air Force, but it is likely that no official orders ensued, and so very few of this watch, basically a pilot’s version of the more successful Fifty Fathoms, were actually made. The new Blancpain Air Command corresponds to the 1950s version, with a bi-directional rotating bezel in ceramic, and bezel markings, numerals and hour markers in “old radium” SuperLuminova. The watch is very close to the original, though with the improvements offered by contemporary technology – for example, the ceramic bezel, instead of bakelite, the sapphire watchglass in the place of the original Plexiglas, and an automatic, anti-magnetic movement.
Fine dial design
It is a real pleasure to see a watch in which the design of the dial matches the precision of the engineering. The minute and seconds hands are of a perfect length for readings on the fractional minutes scale and tachometer, even though for most people it would necessitate a magnifying glass. The scale is divided into fifth-second intervals, matching the calibre’s 5 Hertz frequency. The hour numerals are in an authentic-looking font. The minute markers on the rotating bezel are useful for setting a countdown for use with the minute hand. The box-type watchglass reflects 1950s watch design. Blancpain have commendably decided not to add a date window.
Chronograph counter markings, 3-6-9 minutes
A significant difference with respect to the original design is the subdial arrangement: the 1950s Air Command had running seconds at 9 o’clock, and 30 chronograph minutes at 3 o’clock. The new version has an hour counter at 9 o’clock. One detail of the chronograph minutes counter comprises the longer markings at 3, 6 and 9 minutes. The reason for this is not entirely clear, but it could be related to navigation calculations. Six minutes is a useful interval because it is one-tenth of an hour. So, for example, thinking of an old, slow plane, if you take a position fix, wait for 6 minutes, and take another fix, you can measure the distance on the chart, add a zero (i.e. multiply by 10), and you have your speed. If you use three minutes, you just double the distance and add a zero. (Partial confirmation for this idea comes from the “Admiralty Manual of Navigation,” volume 1, where it says, “A 6 minute interval between fixes is convenient for converting distance to speed made good because the multiplier is 10; e.g. 1.35 miles in 6 minutes equals 1.35 x 10 or 13.5 knots…”) Military chronographs by Heuer dating back to the 1940s often have this feature, as in the photo that you can see here. There is another good photo here (scroll down to photo 17). I can’t find any photos of chronographs prior to this date with these indications, suggesting that the 3, 6 and 9-minute markings reflected a military specification. But this is just speculation, the subject is debated… the usual explanation is that in the 1950s, long-distance phone calls were charged in three-minute units. Less romantic than the navigational theory.
The original watch was powered by the Valjoux 222. The Blancpain Air Command instead features the F388B movement running at 36,000 vibrations per hour, 5 Hertz. It has a vertical clutch and column wheel, ensuring a soft, precise feel when starting, stopping or resetting the chronograph. It has anti-magnetic silicon components for the balance. The view through the display caseback is spectacular with a touch of theatricality: the oscillating weight in red gold is shaped like a propeller. This has the advantage of revealing more of the movement, with the balance and the column wheel in view.
Blancpain Air Command details and price
The watch is 42.5 mm in diameter, 13.77 mm thick, with a steel case providing a 3 bar water resistance. The Blancpain Air Command, reference AC01 1130 63A, is a limited edition of 500 pieces. Price 18,500 Swiss francs. Read more at https://www.blancpain.com