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Review: An Aviator Returns to Life – The Blancpain Air Command Chronograph

by Frank Chuo on December 2, 2019

Blancpain Air Command Chronograph

Blancpain looks set to command the skies after conquering the seas with its immensely successful Fifty Fathoms line. The new Air Command Chronograph, revealed in the earlier half of 2019, is not exactly a novel timepiece per se, but a re-issue of the original legend from the mid-20th century. The story goes that the 1950’s Air Command was meant to be for the United States Air Force (USAF). Only a handful of prototypes were made and distributed through US distributor Allen V. Tornek. The Air Command project, however, was ultimately shelved by the USAF and no orders for the watch were placed. Today, those pieces are considered grail watches amongst Blancpain and vintage watch collectors, with one example selling at 6-digits in Swiss Francs at a Phillips auction back in 2016. To reissue the Air Command was perhaps a no-brainer for Blancpain. And we are happy to say that it is a very faithful reissue, with minor tweaks to design and a new, superior movement. Here, we bring you the details and our thoughts on the new Blancpain Air Command Chronograph.

The Case, Dial, and Hands

The case of the Blancpain Air Command Chronograph is crafted in stainless steel. Its size stays true to the original at 42.5 mm in diameter (the original measures 42 mm, which is close enough). The crown, pump pushers, and beveled lugs resemble those on the prototype, except that the crown is now larger and the distance between the pushers and the crown is smaller. Like the case, the bi-directional rotating bezel is also made of steel, but with a ceramic insert. The design and colours of the bezel are essentially identical to the vintage specimen, though there is a small discrepancy in typography.

The beautifully polished case is matched with a brown calf leather strap.

The dial is as charming as the case is and is, too, vintage-inspired. The black backdrop serves to highlight everything else on the dial, from the tachymeter scale to the hands. With a bi-compax layout, the chronograph displays reinforces the vintage vibe of the Air Command Chronograph. The minutes sub-counter is located at the 3 o’clock position while the hours sub-counter sits at 9 o’clock. As in the original, the chronograph seconds is indicated by the central hand, though there is no running seconds. The dial is signed with the company marquee, as well as the inscriptions ‘Air Command’ and ‘Flyback’. Meanwhile, Arabic numerals coated with “aged” Superluminova mark the hours. Also coated in “aged” Superluminova are the white, time-telling and chronograph seconds hands; the baton hands in the sub-counters are not treated with luminescent material. There are only minor differences in detail in the new Air Command Chronograph compared to the original prototype. For one, there is no ‘Flyback’ inscription in the original. For another, the original features a running seconds counter at the 9 o’clock position rather than an hours sub-counter, which is found on the new piece. Also, the hour markers are smaller in the prototype series – the watches also have leaf hands in the sub-counters instead of baton hands.

The dial of the Air Command Chronograph is virtually identical to that on the Air Command prototype, except everything looks fresh and pristine.

Our first impressions of the case and dial were positive. They were true to the design of the original Air Command, making the watch a good reissue. Even assuming for a second that it wasn’t a reissue of a beloved vintage watch, the Air Command Chronograph, by its own merits, looks well-finished, well-designed, and exceedingly charming. Credit goes to Blancpain for resisting the urge to include a date display (a move that caters to casual buyers but irks connoisseurs to no end), which keeps the dial in its pure state.

One issue that might lead some to think the watch is pretentious is the use of “aged” Superluminova to imitate the colour of old radium on vintage watches. Indeed, it would have been fine to use plain white Superluminova. The problem, however, is that the Air Command Chronograph would then become a less accurate recreation of the Air Command in its aged state. And let’s be honest, cream coloured Superluminova simply looks better and more appropriate here. The other thing that might bother certain collectors is the ‘Flyback’ inscription on the dial. Not only is it not present in the original, it also results in a dial that is not as clean as it could be. In defense of the Air Command Chronograph, the ‘Flyback’ inscription has been executed as elegantly as possible. And without it, no one but a prying watchmaker or those familiar with the technical specifications of the Air Command Chronograph could know of the watch’s flyback functionality.

Pilot’s watches tend to be humongous, but the Air Command Chronograph, at a diplomatic 42.5 mm, should fit most wrists.

The Movement

Driving the Blancpain Air Command Chronograph is the 35-jewel Calibre F388B. The automatic movement has a power reserve of 50 hours and operates at a speedy 5 Hz beat rate, thus allowing the chronograph to be precise up to 1/10th of a second. The chronograph features a modern construction, with a column wheel and vertical clutch for energy efficiency, durability, and smoother operation. In addition to basic time-telling and chronograph functions, the Calibre F388B is also capable of the flyback function which allows the running chronograph to be reset and started immediately with a single push of the reset button. This is useful when timing a rapid sequence of events such as laps in a race.

The Calibre F388B as seen through the exhibition case back.

The Calibre F388B is attractively finished, showcasing techniques such as chamfering, mirror polishing, circular and linear brushing, and perlage. But perhaps the most eye-catching aspect of the movement remains the golden rotor in the form of a stylised propeller. While some may find the design to be cheesy, we felt that it was a fun addition to an otherwise sterile-looking movement. The Calibre F388B may not possess all the qualities expected of an haute horlogerie movement, but it is still a solid calibre that is objectively superior in technicality and aesthetics compared to the original Valjoux 222 that powered the old Air Command.

Up close shot of the column wheel.

The Competitive Landscape

Pilot’s watches are a fairly common sight today – even Patek Philippe has joined the fray in recent years. Though they have long become obsolete, they still evoke the whimsy of flight, and a sense of nostalgia that appeal to many collectors. The Blancpain Air Command Chronograph is one of the most charming examples of both pilot’s watches and vintage reissues that we’ve seen recently. The model is limited to 500 pieces and is priced at CHF18,000.

The Air Command Chronograph on the wrist.

A fascinating alternative to the Air Command Chronograph is a certain pilot’s watch that debuted in 2019 as well: the IWC Pilot’s Watch Chronograph Top Gun Edition ‘Mojave Desert’. Rendered in lightweight, sand-tone ceramic, the ‘Mojave Desert’ is one of IWC’s most visually distinctive releases yet. On top of a 12-hour chronograph, the watch also possesses day-date functionality. Thanks to its soft-iron inner case, the watch is very much protected from magnetism as well. The Pilot’s Watch Chronograph Top Gun Edition ‘Mojave Desert’ is paired with a matching textile strap with leather lining. Also limited to 500 pieces, the watch retails for USD8,200, or about half the price of the Blancpain Air Command Chronograph.

The IWC Pilot’s Watch Chronograph Top Gun Edition ‘Mojave Desert’.

For something a little less exotic, look no further than the Bell & Ross V2-94 Automatic Chronograph. The V2-94 belongs in the third generation of the aviation-focused brand’s Vintage series. With it’s white-on-black print, the dial is extremely legible, which is ultra-important for a chronograph timepiece. The V2-94 features a 30-minute chronograph display, screw-down pushers, a date display, and a chronograph seconds hand with a counter-balance shaped like the wings of a fighter jet. The watch isn’t just for the skies, but also the waters, as it is paired with a steel bracelet and has a water resistance of 100 m. The finissage on the watch and its movement may not be as fine as either the Blancpain or the IWC, but at USD4,600, there really can be no complaints.

The Bell & Ross V2-94 Automatic Chronograph.

Final Thoughts

Re-issues are hot right now, but they don’t always do their vintage counterparts justice. With the Blancpain Air Command Chronograph, all fears are allayed. The watch is a faithful recreation of the legendary Air Command prototype from the 1950’s but with significant improvements in manufacturing, aesthetics, and watchmaking. It is a mechanical watch that is fit for the 21st century and yet strongly evokes the romance of aviation from yesteryear. Bottom line: the Blancpain Air Command Chronograph is a textbook example of how a vintage reissue should be.

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