Pilots’ Watch Review: Zenith Captain Pilot Chronograph

Zenith Captain Pilot ChronographFor a comparative review, we selected two three-hand pilots’ watches and seven pilots’ chronographs to accompany a trio of pilots – aerobatics champion Klaus Lenhart and his protégés Axel Schütte and Andreas Langer − while they performed an aerobatic program, specially designed for our review, in the skies above the Swabian Mountains in southern Germany. One of the watches chosen was the Zenith Captain Pilot Chronograph.

Lenhart, who is the owner and CEO of the German Leki ski-pole company, flew a sporty, single-seat Leki Extra 330 SC; Schütte, an Extra 300 L; and Langer, a Giles 202. The program consisted of 14 aerobatic figures, lasting a total of about five minutes. Including takeoff and landing, the watches were subjected to stress for about 20 minutes. They encountered g-forces ranging from +7 to –4. By comparison, a passenger aircraft banking for a turn exerts about 2 gs; a rollercoaster ride 4 to 6 Gs. We measured each watch’s rate behavior on a timing machine before and after the aerobatic flight. The pilot’s appraisal of each timepiece was also included in the overall verdict. In particular, the pilot judged each watch’s legibility under various lighting conditions during the flight, as well as passing judgment on its wearing comfort, user friendliness and reliability. Until the launch of its Montre d’Aeronef Type 20 collection last year, this chronograph from the Captain line was Zenith’s only pilots’ watch. Delving into Zenith’s history, we discovered the story of its pilots’ watches. In response to a special request from the Italian air force, Zenith built the Cairelli chronograph in the 1960s. Although the modern Captain Pilot Chronograph is intended to hark back to this watch, its exterior has little in common with it, except for one important detail: the bicompax arrangement of a classic pilots’ watch. The elapsed minutes are shown at 3 o’clock and the running seconds appear on a subdial at 9 o’clock.

Zenith Captain Pilot Chronograph - front
The time display dominates the dial, but the stopwatch function is also easy to read.

The Captain Chronograph, 42 mm in diameter, has a highly legible dial, earning praise from Lenhart, who also liked the watch’s wearing comfort. The simple but well-shaped stainless steel case fits well around the wrist, and the comfort is further enhanced by the high quality of the rubber-lined alligator strap. Long, white wedges mark the hours. These team up with elegantly tapering white hands that contrast clearly with the black dial and the chronograph functions. The chronograph indicators are easy to read, as is the small-seconds subdial and the date at 6 o’clock. Lenhart said that the chronograph pusher at 2 o’clock was too stiff, but he liked the smoothly operating crown. This watch contains the well-known, in-house El Primero caliber, which doesn’t provide a stop-seconds function. This 5-hertz caliber runs in all situations with little deviation of rate, but with a slight loss of 0.2 second per day when fully wound and a loss of 1.1 seconds immediately after the test flight. Zenith’s chronograph and its quickly oscillating balance can measure intervals to 1/10-second, so the dial is correspondingly calibrated around its edge. Zenith’s watch is also the only one in this review with a telemeter scale, which calculates distances by using the speed of sound.  With it, we determined, luckily at the end of our testing session, that there was an electrical storm 7 kilometers away: the chronograph measured 21 seconds between a lightning bolt and a thunderclap.

Zenith Captain Pilot Chronograph - back
The 36,000-vph El Primero is very precise but lacks a stop-seconds function.
Zenith Captain Pilot Chronograph - dark
At night the chronograph seconds hand can only be seen as a dark vertical line that halves the index at 12 o’clock. The small-seconds subdial is also invisible at night.

+ In-house caliber
+ Good rate results
+ Day/night legibility
+ Wearing comfort

– No stop-seconds function
– Rate slightly in the “minus”
– Start/stop button operates stiffly

Manufacturer: Zenith SA
Functions: Hours, minutes, small seconds, date, chronograph, telemeter
Movement: Zenith El Primero 4002, automatic; diameter = 30 mm; height = 6.6 mm; 31 jewels; 36,000 vph; 50-plus-hour power reserve; gold-plated nickel balance; Nivarox hairspring; Kif shock absorber; bipartite index fine regulation; decorated with Geneva waves, circular graining and satin finishing; skeletonized rotor; blued, polished screws
Case: Stainless steel with sapphire crystal front and back; water resistant to 50 meters
Strap and clasp: Alligator and rubber strap with pronged buckle
Dimensions: Diameter = 41.86 mm, height = 12.26 mm, weight = 83.5 grams
Price: $6,400

To read our reviews of the other eight watches in this article — including pilots’ watches from Breitling, Bell & Ross, and Tutima — download the WatchTime E-Special: Pilots Watches from the WatchTime app for only $2.99.

This article was originally published on September 17, 2013, and has been updated.

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  1. Amazing timepiece! My only pet hate is the lack of a stop-seconds function.

    • Claude Grassato

      i agree, I have a pilot big date and it is the same ie you can’t stop the seconds

  2. Jonathan W. Fink

    I haven’t bought a new watch in 2 years. That’s an eternity for me. Any Zenith with the El Primero movement is my next grail piece. What a phenomenal review.

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