Ball Watch Co. was founded in the U.S.A. as a provider of railroad watches in the late 19th Century, and while its current home base is Switzerland, Ball often produces timepieces distinctly inspired by or paying tribute to American history and culture, from 2012’s Grand Central Terminal centennial edition to last year’s flag-draped AeroGMT USA Edition. This year, the latest version of the AeroGMT, the brand’s robust triple-time-zone watch, takes its name and inspiration from a U.S. Air Force veteran and his triumphant story.
“Sled Driver” was the nickname coined for USAF pilots — only 92 of them — who have flown the SR-71 Blackbird, aka “the Sled,” a strategic long-range reconnaissance aircraft that flies at high altitudes of speeds up to Mach 3. The Engineer Hydrocarbon AeroGMT Sled Driver is named for one of these elite pilots in particular — retired USAF Major Brian Shul, whose covert-ops AT-28D plane was shot down near the Cambodian border toward the end of the Vietnam War, incurring extensive injuries and burns in the fiery crash that he was not expected to survive. Told he would never fly again during more than a year of recovery, which included 15 surgeries, Shul nevertheless beat the odds, overcoming the injuries and passing all the flight exams to pilot fighter jets, and eventually the top-secret SR-71 Blackbird, for 10 more years.
The watch devoted to this never-say-die “Sled Driver” has a 42-mm stainless steel case that’s water resistant to 100 meters, impact resistant to 7,500 Gs, antimagnetic resistant to 4,800 A/m, and sealed by Ball’s patented crown protection system. Particularly useful to pilots, the watch allows the reading of three separate time zones: local time on the central, broad, sword-shaped hands, a second time zone on the black dial’s 24-hour scale via an airplane-tipped GMT hand, and a third on the bidirectional, bicolor bezel with its own 24-hour scale. Unique to this model of the AeroGMT are the planform of the SR-71 at 6 o’clock, accompanied by Brian Shul’s signature and the all-caps “SLED DRIVER” text above it.
The dial’s hour indices and hands are made of yellow H3 micro gas tubes — doubled at 3, 6, and 9 o’clock — along with a double index made of orange gas tubes at 12 o’clock. The blue GMT hand is distinguished by a single green micro gas tube. The scratch-resistant, sapphire-coated bezel is divided into black and dark blue sectors for AM and PM, and also uses green H3 tubes on its 24-hour scale. The energy of the light-emitting H3 gas is released when the H3 molecules strike the tubes’ internal surfaces, making for continuous, long-lasting luminosity (up to 25 years without requiring a recharge) that is also up to 100 times brighter than other luminous substances used on watch dials, such as Super-LumiNova.
The silhouette of the SR-71 Blackbird is repeated on the solid caseback, as part of the engraved depiction of the Mach 3+ emblem worn by all that aircraft’s qualified crew members. Also emblazoned on its edge with a ring of world cities to represent the 24 major time zones, the caseback covers the automatic movement, Caliber BALL RR1201-C, based on the ETA 2393-2 and chronometer-certified by COSC. Driving a date indication at 3 o’clock as well as the hours, minutes, central running seconds and the adjustable 24-hour GMT hand, it has a frequency of 28,800 vph and holds a 42-hour power reserve.
The Ball Engineer Hydrocarbon AeroGMT Sled Driver will come on a steel bracelet with a patented, extendable triple-folding buckle or a black rubber strap with a pin buckle. Priced at $3,499, the model is limited to 1,990 pieces, a reference to the year of the SR-71 Blackbird’s final flight in USAF service and the international speed records set on that flight.