Breitling Emergency

Many watch manufacturers claimed to have created Pilot’s watches in the distance and near past. Many, including the Flieger models from the middle of the last century, were manufactured from design criteria given by Pilot’s Associations around the globe. The Breitling Navitimer is one of those timepieces can claim to be a true pilot’s watch as it was adopted by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA).

However, in 1988 (not 1995 as many believe) Breitling introduced a revolutionary model that incorporated a unique feature that went beyond simple criteria such as easy to read, ease of use with thick gloves on, etc. This new model included a microtransmitter that emitted the globally recognised distress frequency of 121.5Mhz! This watch was not only designed to make life easier for Pilots but also, in extreme circumstances, to make it longer. The rare sight of the original design of Emergency:

In 1995 this design had been optimised the Emergency as we know it today was released.


Originally the model was only made available to professional pilots. However, the public interest soon became so fervent that the Emergency was made available through High Street Dealers.

As with most high end wrist watches there is this one main element to this watch that seems super superficial. The transmitter can be likened to 3000m guaranteed water resistance levels in that it is highly unlikely that you will ever need it, but it is reassuring to know that it is there. What it cannot be likened to is the superficial nature of a diamond bezel. This has zero practical use but, to some (not me) it is also nice to have. I mention this last analogy because, like others I’m sure, I am drawn to the aesthetics of the additional transmitter. Many may find it ugly, like a titanium hunch back or melanoma, but I like the utilitarian look it gives the Emergency. This is a true tool watch. Breitling’s slogan “Instruments for Professionals” is never more relevant than with this amazing timepiece.

The microtransmitter was designed to complement an aircraft’s onboard distress transmitting equipment. The transmitter is activated by unscrewing the large knurled cap protruding from the bottom right of the case. The wound aerial within can then be pulled to its 43cm length. If used across flat terrain the signal can be read up to 100 miles away. This assumes that the search aircraft is flying at the usual 20,000 ft. Two lithium 3V batteries, which are separate from the watch’s movements power source, provides power for the microtransmitter for 48 hours. The operating temperature range is between -10°C and +85°C. The transmitter is totally independent of the movement. Once the rescue has been successful the aerial should be wrapped around the case of the watch to stop the signal. The watch can then be returned to Breitling who will, if the transmitter was used for a proven emergency, replace the transmitter free of charge.


For those wondering how you ever know if the transmitter were functioning correctly, given that is it illegal to use it without any emergency situation (more on that below), there is no need to be concerned. Included with the watch is the most impressively packaged case I have seen with a watch. Within there is a tester for the transmitter which, when used, gives a reassuring burst of the transmission.

One serious word of warning: When you buy an Emergency there is a serious caveat. You are forced to sign a document that states that you will only use the transmitter in a real emergency situation. If the transmitter is activated when the user is not in peril then a fine of thousands will be due. As I mentioned before, its one of those safety features that you are glad you have but you hope you never use.

So, that’s the obvious attention-grabbing, conversation-starter part of this watch discussed. So, what about the rest of this fabulous timepiece:

The case and bracelet are all Titanium, which makes this 43mm timepiece less than 85 grams in weight and very comfortable to wear, even with the added cylindrical appendage.


The bracelet has Breitling stamped fold over catch to stop the deployant buckle from accidentally opening. Interestingly, it also has an extension built in. These are most commonly found on divers watches to allow the watch to worn over a divers suit. With only a 30m water resistance this is, obviously, not relevant here. Perhaps it has been included to facilitate the wearing of the watch over a pilot’s suit. As an aside: I find these extensions to be useful even though I am not a diver, or a pilot in this instance. I find it allows my friends and family to try my watches on their average size wrists even though the watch has been sized for my 6.5 inch wrist. Is it just me?

The glass is sapphire, as befits a tool watch such as this. As mentioned above, the water resistance is a rather limiting 30m. In reality this means that you could bathe and shower in the watch but nothing more. This is the only real criticism I could level at a watch that has tool watch aspirations.

The electronics driving this digital multi-function watch is one of Breitling’s proprietary thermally compensated “Super-Quartz” movements, which was incorporated in 2001. Breitling are the only company who send all of their quartz movements to the COSC for accuracy testing. Each of these movements will have had to perform in tests that guarantee an accuracy equivalent of about +/- 20 seconds per year! A difference you would be very hard pushed to even notice.

The plethora of aforementioned multi-functions include:

100th/second Chronograph, up to 24 hours.

24 hour time display.

Countdown Timer

Second Time Zone


Day and Date four year calendar

End Of Life (battery) indicator

There is even a mode whereby neither of the displays are active, to prolong battery life.


There are two LCD displays on the very legible dial. The top one highlights the current mode and the bottom is used to display the information for each mode. What is very unique, aesthetically appealing and down-right cool is all of these functions are controlled by simply pressing, pulling or rotating the crown. Navigating between each mode sequentially is facilitated by simply turning the crown. This takes a little getting used to, especially those modes where turning slowly has a different function to turning quickly. However, this soon becomes very easy to perform repeatedly. Modes are generally adjusted by pulling out the crown and enabled/disabled by pushing the crown. Very clever and user friendly. I was pleasantly surprised how easy it was to perform these operations with the watch still on my left wrist. This also gives a nice clean look to the side of the case, without the usual push-pieces at 2 and 4 O’clock. This is a nice feature on the Aerospace but is almost critical on the Emergency with a lot of real estate already taken up by the transmitters.

Comfort-wise the one main concern I had was that the transmitter cap would dig into the back of the hand but this just doesn’t happen. The bezel moves smoothly and is endowed with a compass scale in 10 degree increments. The luminosity can only be described as perfunctory. It is bright and lasts through the whole night. However, it is not particularly liberally applied, being only present on the thin hands. The numbers do offer some luminosity but I found this to be minimal in brightness. Looked good though. Sadly, unlike the Aerospace, Airwolf and Chronospace, there is no backlight on the Emergency for the digital display. I’m not sure why but I’m guessing there must be a reason because Breitling clearly have the technology to include this useful feature. The hands are very thin for a tool watch but thought has been given to the contrast between the dial and hand colours. The darker colour dials are coupled with white hands and the yellow dial has black hands. This results in a very legible analogue time display.

The Emergency has been used to aid rescue of numerous professional and civilian pilots and others in distress. Another great testimonial for this extraordinary timepiece is that many professional military and aviation associations use this timepiece on a daily basis. These include the Red Arrows, The Frecce Tricolori and the Swiss Air Force Team. The Emergency was also given some remarkable press when, in 1999, it was worn by Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones when they piloted the first non-stop Air Balloon flight around the globe in Orbiter 3. A total of over 25000 miles. Special Limited Edition versions of the Emergency have been made available to commemorate these associations.


Some may question spending a lot of money on a quartz digital watch. However, I think this is very reasonably priced when you consider the headlines:

All Titanium Case and Bracelet.

Sapphire Glass.

Multiple functions that are controlled by a single crown.

Very accurate thermally compensated SuperQuartz movement.

That unique, remarkable, potentially life saving, transmitter.


All this results in a truly unique and ground breaking timepiece. There really is nothing like it and I, personally, love the aesthetics. As always you get Breitlings incredible attention to detail and quality of fit and finish.

If you are considering the value and relevance of the transmitter, which is really the only true feature that sets this watch apart, then I would say this: I have 6 airbags in my car. I have undoubtedly paid a lot of money for them. I sincerely hope I never need them. But I’m so glad they are there and I would always pay for them given the option. I wonder how much the 100s of people whose lives have been saved because of the Emergency would value this superb pilots watch and its unique transmitter. Priceless?


Many Thanks to Andrew of Andrew Michael’s Jewellers for lending me his own personal Red Arrows Limited Edition Emergency for this review.

All words and pictures by Richard Atkins (unless otherwise stated). Please ask if you wish to reproduce any of the material in this article.


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