I imagine the moment that pilots Matt Jones and Steve Boultbee Brooks approached IWC’s CEO Chris Grainger-Herr with the seemingly implausible, highly irrational and altogether far-fetched idea of getting into a 75-year-old airplane that in stock form has a range of 700 miles — before having to refuel — and circumnavigating the planet earth in it, he immediately saw the charm in this.
Because there is something about the specific 75-year-old plane that Jones and Brooks wanted to use to travel the 43,000 kilometers, which will be divided into the 100 segments, that held particular appeal to IWC’s CEO. He explains, “The Supermarine Spitfire is one of the most iconic feats of engineering and design. The Spitfire became a legend during WWII and in particular in the skies during the Battle of Britain.”
The plane was famous for combining some of the most advanced innovations of the time. These included a monocoque aluminum chassis. A retractable undercarriage, meaning that all landing gear could be retracted to greatly enhance the aerodynamics of the aircraft. And perhaps, most famously, the Spitfire used elliptical wings, which induced the lowest amount of drag while still retaining the necessary structural integrity to create a robust, reliable plane.
The Spitfire was also paired with a large Rolls Royce Merlin engine that produced 1,030 horsepower and combined with its incredible light weight, made for the most maneuverable fighter plane of its era and was a key to the RAF’s victory over the Luftwaffe in 1940. As a testament to the plane’s incredible design, in later versions, the engine would be upgraded to more than double this horsepower and used in tests related to breaking the sound barrier with no significant changes to the plane’s original configuration.
Says Grainger-Herr, “As an act of design ingenuity that was tested in the most harrowing of circumstances, the Spitfire is a legend. It is a masterpiece of engineering and at the same time its function is defined by elements such as its elliptical wings or the rivets that are counter sunk to reduce aerodynamic drag, these are some of the things that make it so beautiful.
“I immediately saw parallels with IWC, which is a luxury Swiss watch brand that always has engineered functionalism as one of its greatest priorities. Indeed, it was our capacity to create incredible highly legible and incredible robust timepiece that made us the supplier to the Royal Air Force with the famous Mark XI watch.” The timepiece that Grainger-Herr refers to is in horological terms as legendary as the Spitfire.
The legend that is the Mark XI began in the mid ’40s when the British Ministry of Defence sent out a tender for the creation of a watch for its pilots. The requirements of the watch were as follows: It had to have a black iron dial marked with full Arabic numerals from 1-12 and the dial had to be “luminized,” at the four cardinal indices. It needed to have a 12-ligne movement, capable of -4/ +4 accuracy, and be equipped with a hacking function. It had to be waterproof to 20 feet. It had to have a Faraday anti-magnetic cage, hence the iron dial. Finally its crystal had to be retained by a screw to prevent detachment during decompression.
The result was the Mark XI IWC watch, which beginning in 1949 was issued to various branches of the RAF. Movement was the Caliber 89. All watches had to be regulated at the Greenwich observatory and had to be retested there every year. In 1952 the dial was endowed with its now iconic triangle-shaped index at 12 o’clock. IWC was the supplier to the RAF with the Mark XI from 1949 all the way to 1981. And was the sole supplier from the early ’60s onward. Today Mark XI watches are some of the most coveted vintage timepieces, while IWC makes a superb 40mm re-edition of this timepiece in its current line-up. Last year Revolution and The Rake, in collaboration with IWC created a 150-piece limited edition 36mm bronze case tribute to the legendary Mark XI that sold out in 18 minutes online.
Now that the relationship between IWC and the RAF has been firmly established, it seems a natural fit for the watch brand to sponsor a Spitfire’s first journey around the world. The two individuals behind this record setting flight are not just pilots but cultural historians in their own way. Together Jones and Brooks co-founded the Boultbee Academy. Based on Goodwood Estate, this is the world’s only training school to teach pilots to fly Spitfires. It also offers Spitfire experience flights, in specially outfitted two-seater planes (the military planes were single seaters) and has even developed a Spitfire simulator. The two pilots have, in essence, dedicated their lives to preserving the heritage and story of the Spitfire. And it was Jones and Brooks that first began toying with the idea of taking a Spitfire around the world.
Says Brooks, “There is such reverence for this aircraft. Children still make models of the Spitfire, yet in many parts of the world people have never seen one in reality. We decided that we would fly a plane from England across to the United States, then to Asia and India before turning to the Middle East and returning back to Europe. We would stop in 100 different destinations and welcome people to come see the plane and hear about its history and our adventure.
Says Jones, “We have been friends with the IWC family for many years. The thing that brings us together is the joint love for engineering precision. Both of which are vastly important in the creation of the world’s finest timepieces. In addition we knew that IWC shared our passion for aviation with its specialization in the creation of pilot’s watches. Chris Grainger, who lived in England for many years and is an architect by training, and also looks for objects that are defined by incredible aesthetics serving function, had a special reverence for the Spitfire. After our first conversation with him we knew we had found the right partner to make our vision for an around the world flight a reality.”
Says Grainger-Herr, “I was very impressed by Matt and Steve. They explained to me that the cabin of the Spitfire is not pressurized so you experience all the weather condition in the extreme. Over the Artic and even the Atlantic at high altitude they will experience freezing weather and at low altitudes over Nevada, the cabin will be at boiling point. This really is a tribute to an amazing engineering icon but also a huge test of human endurance. I think the two factors together are really appealing and very representative of the values of IWC.”
As I was lucky enough to hold the launch party for IWC’s limited edition collaboration with this magazine, this January, at the brand’s booth at SIHH, I was blown away by the very specially prepared Spitfire that the duo of Brooks and Jones will be using for this incredible journey.
The plane, which is MJ 271, was built in Castle Bromwich in 1943 and delivered to the Dutch Air Force. Says Jones, “The plane then was purchased by a British collector who used it as a static display until we were able to acquire it from him.” Says Brooks, “We then brought the Spitfire to Duxford Airplane Restoration Company, where 15 restoration experts spent the better part of two years tearing the plane down and restoring its tens of thousands of parts.” “Instead of painting the plane, it was decided that every part of aluminium body would be painstakingly hand polished to a high sheen. This would have not been possible in the context of a military plane, however for the purposes of a trans global sojourn it brought a dimension of almost otherworldly ethereal beauty to the Spitfire,” Says Grainger-Herr.
He continues, “I think this is without a doubt the single most beautiful Spitfire in existence. The result of the meticulous hand polishing is simply breath-taking. Thanks to this shiny surface the unmistakeable silhouette of the aircraft and in particular the signature elliptical wings are more defined and pronounced than ever before.” Instead of the normal two fuel tanks the Silver Spitfire adds 6 more for a total of 8 tanks, while the powerful Rolls-Royce Merlin 70 1700 horsepower engines have been given a total overhaul.”
This incredible partnership, of course, begs the question, which IWC watch will the two pilots have strapped to their wrists, as they embark on this historic endeavour? For both men the watch they wear is a vital piece of equipment especially in a cockpit that is largely devoid of modern electronics. Says Brooks, “A pilot’s watch means everything to him or her. When you are flying there are lots of decisions to make. You need to be able to completely rely on your instruments and your equipment. Time is always a critical factor related to flying and it is impossible to overstate how important your choice of watch is. It is not just reliability but functionality as well that is massively critical and IWC watches provide both.”
Says Jones, “When discussing our choice of watch with the IWC team, the idea of a UTC watch, that could rapidly and legibly display time in multiple zones and that could be reset with ease to a new local time zone, but also show Greenwich Mean Time or Zulu Time or Universal Time Coordinated, which is the universal reference time pilots use, was key. Fortunately IWC happens to have a watch called the Timezoner, which from a functional perspective is an absolute work of genius.” OK, if you’ve never operated an IWC Timezoner before then you need to because Jones is totally correct. The watch, which has the single most functional multi-time zone display is actually based on an innovative bezel control system first invented by a man named Michael Vogt.
In 2005, along with watchmaking genius Thomas Prescher, Vogt patented a world time system that incorporated a bezel marked with 24 of the world’s cities, each representing one of the world’s 24 major time zones. The local city was aligned with an indicator at 12 o’clock. You would set your time and date to this city. Anytime you wanted to check the time in a different city you simply rotated your bezel and the central hands, the 24 hour display and even the date would automatically adjust to the new city and zone.
If you wanted to return to the original city simply rotate the bi-directional bezel back and the hands and date display would instantly switch back. It was simply speaking the easiest to use and most legible world time/GMT watch on the planet. It was strictly speaking more of a GMT/UTC than a world time watch because it displayed time in one zone at any given moment rather than time in 24 zones simultaneously. However, the world time display would be all but useless in the cockpit as it would be impossible to read. Says Jones, “In the cockpit especially that of a Spitfire, legibility is everything. The IWC Timezoner is the most legible multiple time zone watch we’ve ever used. In addition the way you switch between zones by simply pushing down on the bezel and turning it, makes it something you can operate even with gloves on. This watch will be a critical piece of equipment for our global journey.”
What is additionally appealing about the IWC Timezoner watch is that in the cities that are affected by Daylight Savings Time there is an additional mark so you know exactly where on the bezel to align it during this period, so your watch is always accurate.
To commemorate the incredible journey of the Silver Spitfire around the world, IWC has created a very special limited edition called the Pilot’s Watch Timezoner Spitfire Edition “The Longest Flight”, which injects a large measure of retro-chic to the iconography of this handsome functional timepiece. It features an oversized steel case, black dial, black ceramic bezel engraved with the names of the 24 cities as well as Daylight Savings markings. It also features luminous material that evokes vintage aged tritium and comes on a highly appealing and very cool olive green military styled strap, ensuring that in their historic circumnavigation Jones and Brooks will not only be two of the most heroic pilots but also two of the most stylish in the air.