When it comes to military aviation chronographs, the Blancpain Air Command is one of the rarest and most sought after of vintage pilot’s watches. In a realm where provenance is everything, the haze of myth and legend surrounding the original Air Command adds further allure to both the pioneering model and the 2019 re-issue of the military aviation chronograph.
No official documentation was ever found regarding the Blancpain Air Command but from what Le Brassus records that can be found, we do know that it was never serially produced or sold. When the French Ministry of Defence started putting out requisition requests for a high precision flyback chronograph in the 1950s, it sparked a new genre of military aviation chronographs like the Type XX. At the time, Blancpain was already working with the US Navy with a milspec Fifty Fathoms diver’s watch and so they drew some inspiration from it for a chronograph edition for the US Air Force. Some correspondence show that the aviation chronograph was offered to USAF through their US distributor, Allen V. Tornek, but no orders were ever placed for the Air Command and so, it stands to reason that the military chronograph was never produced. That said, a few dozen prototypes were shelved and never saw the light of day again, until the quartz crisis, when the brand started to sell off some of its intellectual property to stay afloat, including the small volume of original edition Air Command aviation chronographs where a few rare specimens eventually made it into the hands of astute collectors.
The thick, largish (for the era) 42mm Air Command utilised the Valjoux caliber 222 featuring a fly-back function. A particularly well preserved model was recently auctioned at the Philips & Blackbird: Sports auction in Hong Kong on 27th May 2019, expected to fetch US$50,000 to US$100,000. The vintage Blancpain Air Command was eventually hammered at US$144,000, almost 50% higher than its estimated reserve.
For 2019, Blancpain is reissuing this legendary Air Command in a 500-piece vintage style edition, celebrating this little-known part of its history. Blancpain’s newest military aviation chronograph is authentic to the original. Equipped with a ratcheted “countdown” rotating bezel, the new Air Command chronograph allows instantaneous reading of the exact time when the fuel reserve is no longer sufficient for the plane to continue its trajectory when the bezel is set before take off.
While the application of faux-patina or “old radium” type Super-LumiNova on the time scale of the bezel, as well as the dial hour-markers and hands, can be hit or miss depending on your watch collecting ideological bent, it does imbue a certain vintage charm on the 2019 Blancpain Air Command thanks to the orange hue of the original chronograph indications. Like the original aviation chronograph, the new Limited Edition Air Command bears a 30-minute totaliser at 3 o’clock and a 12-hour counter at 9 o’clock, while a tachymeter scale running around the chapter ring indicates speeds based on a 1000-metre distance.
In order to enhance the readability of the information and accentuate the majestic nature of this collector’s watch, Blancpain has improved the dial opening compared to the original model. The face of the new Air Command is protected by a sapphire box-type crystal, a distinctive characteristic of the watches from this period that also appears on the back of the watch – a first for Blancpain. The 42.5 mm diameter steel case thus reveals a snailed movement notably graced with a contrasting propeller-shaped red gold oscillating weight.
In place of the Valjoux 222, the new Blancpain Air Command is powered by the F388B movement, whose high frequency of 5 Hz is perfectly adapted to its military specifications allowing measurement precision right down to tenth-of-a-second intervals. Another advantage of the F388B movement is a vertical clutch that provides the chronograph seconds hand with a smooth start, as well as optimally seamless stop and start functions. Actuation feels buttery-smooth thanks to its column-wheel system.
The new 500-piece limited edition Air Command chronograph makes a remarkable entry into the brand’s modern collection, re-igniting a fervour for 1950s military aviation and the heritage of the Le Brassus Manufacture.
2019 Air Command Price and Specs
Movement Automatic Caliber F388B with 50 hours power reserve
Case 42mm stainless steel with 100 metres water resistance
Price CHF 18,500