The Blancpain Air Command is one of the most elusive timepieces in horological history, and thanks to the talented team of Swiss perfectionists at the Blancpain manufacturing facility, the handsome pilot’s watch which has been the apple of many a collector’s eye for decades is getting a second chance at life.
Watches that pay homage to the past can often be tacky and half-cooked, or otherwise ruffle the feathers of purists for their modern interventions which defeat the purpose of crafting a “vintage” piece. This example, however, is a masterstroke in modern technology being used to bolster an already near-perfect design, with little meddling to the aesthetics making for a really quite remarkable reproduction of one of their finest.
Originally designed and produced for the US Air Force in the 1950s, after Blancpain had already made themselves visible to the military powers-that-be with their Fifty Fathoms diving watch, the Air Command was a flyback chronograph that was offered to United States Air Force pilots via the company’s US distributor, Allen Tornek. Thing is: nobody knows exactly how many are out there, or how many are genuine and original; supposedly a mere dozen were actually completed by Blancpain. As such, the last one of these to go under the hammer–a seldom occurrence–sold for CHF100,000, or over AUD$140,000.
The 2019 release, which will consist of 500 examples being produced (still a tiny amount but certainly more than the original), is incredibly similar to its predecessor. Short of a slightly larger dial (which, in turn, accommodates for slightly larger Arabic numeral markers), most of the details have been replicated accurately. The addition of “Flywheel”, scrawled across the black dial, as well as the more modernised “Blancpain” logo are both appropriate and subtle modernisations that don’t detract from the vintage aesthetic of the rest of the piece.
The movement, however, differs vastly from the flyback Valjoux caliber 222 in the original–it is a Blancpain caliber F388B–a column-wheel controlled, flyback automatic chronograph with vertical clutch. Running at 5 hertz, or 36,000 vph, this newer style gives the Air Command a 1/10 of a second resolution.
And that movement is completely visible through the sapphire crystal caseback, which also exposes one of this watch’s most striking features: the propellor-shaped rotor, which ties everything about this piece back to its roots, as a pilot’s watch from a very different time.
In short, other companies are at pains to either make their more modern watches look vintage, or rerelease unauthentic versions of yesterday’s watches that irk those in-the-know. Here, we see Blancpain genuinely recreating something that lives in the annals of legend-status horology, and doing it very, very well.