The Story Behind Victorinox Swiss Army Airboss Watches

The Airboss series of watches by Victorinox Swiss Army has been a popular cog in the company’s product line. Named after the officer in charge of an aircraft carrier’s flight deck, Airboss watches are aviation inspired, but not necessarily considered pilot watches.

A "real" airboss in action. The yellow jersey is typical of this station. Photo: Wikipedia

A “real” air boss in action. The yellow jersey is typical of this station. Photo: Wikipedia

Instead of being tied to a blueprint of pilot watches from history, Airboss watches offered increasingly complicated and quirky design features with an amazing variety of models generation after generation. Swiss Army is currently on version 10 of the series. Below are some typical pilot watches that come to mind in the pilot genre.

Traditional Pilot Watches

Traditional Pilot Watches

Swiss Army Airboss Mach 1 - The First of the Breed

Given the variety of later models, it might be surprising to find the first Airboss was somewhat “normal”. The most radical feature of this model was the bright yellow painted hands. I never realized why such a bright color was used until I read that human air bosses on aircraft carriers often wear bright yellow shirts to stand out in the color coded world of naval aviation. It makes perfect sense now.

Quartz powered Swiss Army Airboss Mach 1 on bracelet

Quartz powered Swiss Army Airboss Mach 1 on bracelet

As a play on words, each new Airboss version of the series was designated with a Mach number instead of Mark number. It is common knowledge that “mach” is used the show how fast an aircraft flies relative to the speed of sound. I think that this is pretty clever marketing.

USN F-18 Hornet pushing the sound barrier

USN F-18 Hornet pushing the sound barrier

It should also be noted that all of the Airboss models fall under the Swiss Airforce product offshoot of Swiss Army. These could be considered aviation inspired professional watches, arguably of higher quality than some of the consumer models that sold for less money… though all Swiss Army watches are well made in my opinion.

Notice the Swiss Airforce logo on the back. Swiss Army appears on front.

Notice the Swiss Airforce logo on the back. Swiss Army appears on the front

Notable design features of the Airboss Mach 1 include white painted hands with a yellow luminescent material. A sloped chapter ring shows 5-minute increments and adds depth to the matte black dial. The painted numerals have corresponding 24-hour military times. This model has an applied Swiss Army shield without Victorinox in the logo.

Early model Airboss watches had painted numerals and matte black dials

Early model Airboss watches had painted numerals and matte black dials

The plain bezel was somewhat exposed and took the brunt of nicks and scratches. The case was a modest 40 mm and sported a 21 mm band width. The unsigned crown was functional but not embellished. Overall, this watch was all business without the added complications that the later models had. An automatic version of the Mach 1 was released but was visually similar.

The Airboss Mach 1's lume during night operations

The Airboss Mach 1’s lume during night operations

The humble Mach 1 model defined the design language that would be carried consistently through to the Mach 4 watches. After that, Swiss Army started to veer away from this well-explored style into other directions of interest, which were equally compelling.

The Airboss Mach 1 had a steel bracelet and deployant clasp

The Airboss Mach 1 had a steel bracelet and deployant clasp

Swiss Army Airboss Mach 2 - Adding a Countdown Bezel

The Airboss Mach 2 added an uncommon internal countdown bezel, which is different than a diver’s bezel that is set at a starting point to count up the time. To use the countdown feature, the user would line up the intended amount of time (37 minutes in the photo below) to the current minute hand position. When the minute hand reached the yellow triangle on the bezel, the elapsed time was done. This is a useful real world feature. For instance, when the outside temperature is warm and I walk the dogs, I set the bezel for 20 minutes to reduce the risk of overheating my K9 companions. It works great for grilling steaks too.

The automatic Swiss Army Airboss Mach 2, now with an internal countdown bezel

The automatic Swiss Army Airboss Mach 2, now with an internal countdown bezel

Swiss Army Airboss Mach 3 - The Ultimate Chronograph

The Airboss Mach 3 upped the ante by adding a 12-hour chronograph complication with 1/10th of a second accuracy. Let me tell you, there is no other watch that I know of that has these many pushers disguised as crowns. The actual crown is recessed at the 9:00 position. The false crown at 3:00 is actually the control to change the internal bezel setting. The date window was moved to the 10:00 position to allow the chronograph subdials to sit next to each other.

The Airboss Mach 1 compared to the Airboss Mach 3 Chronograph

The Airboss Mach 1 compared to the Airboss Mach 3 Chronograph

Even the chronograph pushers are different from what might be considered the normal position on the right side. They are on the left side of the watch and “reversed” where the lower pusher starts and stops the chronograph and the top one resets it to zero. This means that the user tends to use his thumb instead of a pointer finger to start the chronograph, which actually works better than it sounds. But wait, there is even more!.

A quartz 60-minute center register chronograph works like an Lemania 5100 powered watch

A quartz 60-minute center register chronograph works like a Lemania 5100 powered watch

Just when you thought they were done, Swiss Army added a surprise to the chronograph in the form of stacked central hands. I will dedicate a whole article to this feature at another time, but essentially there is a 60-minute chronograph in the center register. The white hand ticks off the seconds and the yellow hand ticks off the minutes. This is arguably the most legible type of chronograph to use because it is so large and easy to discern at a glance. The yellow hand hides under the white one when not in use.

So to recap, the Airboss Mach 3 has an internal countdown bezel, a 60-minute central register chronograph, left handed pushers, a 12-hour and a 1/10th of a second subdial. Plus, the lugs have 2 separate sets of holes drilled to accommodate NATO straps, leather watch bands, and metal bracelets. That is a lot of value for your money and insane attention to detail.  Some people do not like the fact that there are no ticking seconds unless the chronograph is on, but that might have added another subdial.

Swiss Army Airboss Mach 4 - Less is More

The last model of the Airboss series to have yellow hands was the Mach 4, which went from a quartz movement to a mechanical Unitas 6497-2 movement. The size swelled to 45 mm (from 43 mm), but it retained the internal countdown bezel. A small sweeping seconds subdial was added in the 7:00 position. The subdial hands are a unique 2 sided design. Perhaps this is so you could start timing something sooner (by choosing either end of the hand) or time 2 events at one simultaneously. Again, this shows “outside the box” thinking.

The last of the yellow hands on a mechanical Swiss Army Airboss Mach 4

The last of the yellow hands on a mechanical Swiss Army Airboss Mach 4

As a cohesive product series, I think that Swiss Army should be commended for elevating the original Airboss Mach 1 design to new heights on their journey all the way to the Mach 4. When they felt like they had done all that they could, they were not afraid to wipe the slate clean and try new things like a GMT Mach 5 and Tachymeter Chronograph Mach 6.

I should also mention, that there were other variations that did not use yellow hands. I believe that is when Swiss Army started to explore variations on the theme. Be on the lookout for more articles on the Swiss Army Airboss watches… they are my favorite models that the brand makes and there is a lot more to this story. I have since sold the original Airboss Mach 1 to make room for the more interesting and complicated Airboss models. It was bittersweet letting it go.

Good bye to the Mach 1

Good bye to the Mach 1

Andrew Hughes

Author Andrew Hughes

A graphic designer and photographer in Atlanta, Georgia who came down with a serious obsession for things that wind up, tick and tell time.

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