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Top Gear Guide To Watches

How to tell the time while pulling 6g in a stunt plane

Ollie Marriage tests out Oris's latest creation. In an aerobatic biplane

  • At 6g I can’t even lift my hand off my leg, let alone press buttons on the watch. James Bond never had this trouble. At 12g he still managed to get his watch to shoot a dart to disable a centrifuge. I can feel the blood leaching from my head, my face sagging. I make a mighty effort, my wrist twists fractionally and in my peripheral vision I can just make out the dial…

    …and there’s the second hand ticking nonchalantly along, describing the same shape around the dial’s face as we are currently painting through the air. Things were easier when all we were doing was flying along upside down.

    We had this plan, see. Oris has been making pilot’s watches for 75 years, and its latest, the Big Crown ProPilot Altimeter, is the world’s first automatic mechanical watch with a built-in mechanical altimeter.

    So what better way to give it a proper test than take it for a flight? A flight with Rich Goodwin, in his Pitts S-2B. He’d fly along, I’d have a fiddle with the oversized crown, make sure the altimeter was accurate and we’d be back down congratulating ourselves on a job well done as we marched over to the mess hall for a slap-up feed. 

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  • Rich has other ideas. Rich wants to show me what his plane can do. Rich used to fly Tornados for the RAF, and flew sorties over Iraq during the first Gulf War. He pilots Boeings for a living now, and has been doing aerobatics for over 30 years. Not in Boeings.

    He tells me about his biplane. I get quite excited about the 8.5-litre flat-six Lycoming engine. It might only rev to 2,700rpm and develop 260bhp, but the whole plane, from propeller to rear drag wheel and wingtip to wingtip, weighs less than 750kg. Then he tells me the wings are made of wood. Not carbon fibre or titanium but that well-known futuristic material that scientists speak of in the same hushed tones as carbon nanotubes: spruce. 

  • Spruce, wrapped in fabric, the whole caboodle taped together. As an oddly chilly wind blows along the grass strip at Bidford Airfield on this bright summer’s day, I try to make myself feel better by having a look in the cockpit. I’ll be sitting in the front, where there are fewer dials to tap and look concerned about.

    “Up you hop,” says Rich, “just don’t tread on the floor – the aluminium skin is very thin indeed.” Hmm. Apparently this means it’s OK to stand on the network of drinking straws that comprise the Pitts’s spaceframe chassis. I can see exactly why it weighs 750kg now.

    Rich goes on to tell me that the design of the Pitts dates back to the late Forties, and takes me through a safety briefing where the words ‘parachute’ and ‘g-suit’ are notable by their absence. 

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  • To settle myself, I go off to have a play with the watch. It comes in a chunky Peli case presentation box which is the most structurally rigid thing I’ve seen at Bidford so far. There’s a satisfying heft to the ProPilot with its 47mm casing – I strap it on my wrist and feel instantly more… pilot-like. Airworthy.

    “Say, what’s the altitude, Navigator Marriage?”

    “Why it’s 2,700ft, Captain Goodwin, with an air pressure of 930 millibars.” I’ve got this.

    Unscrewing the larger, secondary crown at four o’clock allows you to operate and set the altimeter. Making a mechanical altimeter small enough to fit inside a watch is clearly not a simple thing to achieve, or surely it would have been done years ago. 

  • For instance, the altimeter hand has to be strong enough to avoid flexing under the considerable pressures that planes – at least this plane – are capable of inflicting on it. So here, at last, is something made of carbon fibre. Oris claims the laminated part is seven times lighter and 10 times stiffer than the average watch hand.

    And while you need air to enter through the secondary crown to give you your readings, you don’t want moisture getting in, so there’s a neat PTFE membrane to prevent that.

    Keep the crown screwed in, and the watch can withstand 10 bar of water pressure, but here I’ve pulled it out to position one, where a red line is revealed to indicate that the altimeter is actively working.

    I can’t believe how quickly the Pitts accelerates. The engine roars, the prop grabs greedily at the air, and the spruce and drinking straw construction zips forward as if twanged by elastic. 

  • We’re going to do some plane-to-plane shots first. I kid you not. We’re a number of thousand feet in the air, and photographer Karl is leaning out of something slow and stable that lumbers through the air. I do this sort of thing all the time in cars, but adding a third dimension makes things exponentially more complicated.

    For starters, the Pitts doesn’t like flying this slowly, “The wings are nearly stalling,” Rich points out. Translation: we’re on the verge of falling out of the sky.

    “OK, let’s try some inversions now. Give your belts an extra tug.” Wait, we’re doing what?

    The Pitts has a roll rate of 240° per second. It seems to me that in between a single turn of the propeller, we’ve gone from nice, safe, level flight to hanging in untightened harnesses with only a Perspex canopy between me and this very pretty part of England, the sort of place where old men grow large marrows that win prizes at fetes.

    I think I can see one from here, though it just could be the rush of blood. I resist the urge to shriek, settling for a more manly, “Cor!”

    It comes out quite strangled.

  • We’re now doing upside down tracking. Intercom leads and loose ends of harnesses flap around in front of my face, and… “What’s that that’s fallen to the top of the canopy?” Rich asks. I peer upwards… or is it downwards?

    Before we got in, Rich made me empty my pockets and presented me with the only thing I’d need in the event of an emergency. The only thing I was allowed to carry beside the watch. A plain white sick bag is now sitting proudly on the Perspex.

    I retrieve it. I don’t have to move my hand far to reach it. My arms are already there, having flopped uselessly to the roof of the canopy when we flipped over. This has the useful by-product of reminding me about the watch, which sits accusingly on my wrist. As blood empties from my body and pours into my head, turning it redder than the plane’s paintjob, I manage to register the altitude and cross-check it with the plane’s altimeter. Thank God both are easily legible. And perfectly matched at 2,200ft. 

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  • After several more minutes of inversions and un-inversions and flying between clouds, the tracking is done. To prevent any residual motion sickness making its presence felt, Rich gives me control. The Pitts is super-sensitive, hyper-alert – the Caterham of the plane world. I get to do a loop-the-loop and a roll, then, in a new-found mood of exuberant confidence, hand control back and say, “Go on, Rich, do your worst. I’ll keep an eye on the watch.”

    I’m not precisely sure what followed, but underneath us planet Earth suddenly decided to pulse and spin like a party balloon in a hurricane. I could tell you how long this went on for if I’d been able to keep an eye on the watch, but that either seemed to be waving in the air like it just didn’t care or glued to my thigh while my feeble muscles failed to cope with my newly acquired half-ton body weight.

    Note to self: never scratch a tiger with a short stick...

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