This Blancpain novelty left me speechless the moment I encountered it for the very first time in early May just prior to Time to Move. Now I had the chance to spend two days with the prototype Air Command and my first excitement about this exceptional timepiece has actually been deepened.
Here are some first impressions of the new Air Command before we then move back some 60 years.
The history of the Air Command
The Blancpain Air Command reference AC01-1130-63A is a faithful tribute to the mysterious vintage icon from 1957. I call it mysterious because research on the original Air Command has only gone so far, leaving some gaps of information still to be filled hopefully over time. It can’t be said for sure how many watches were produced, but all estimates indicate that there were way less than 100 watches made.
Building on the successful pitch of the Fifty Fathoms Milspec to the US Navy, Blancpain and their North American distribution agent Tornek planned to offer a professional timepiece to the US Air Force. Based on that idea the 41mm hand wound Flyback chronograph Air Command with a Valjoux 222 movement was developed, but the watch was not chosen as an official instrument by the US Air Force. Instead it was subsequently been sold in so called PX stores on USAF bases all over the world. Latest research found that the Air Command actually became an official watch of the Colombian Air Force.
The new Air Command is not the first time Blancpain has utilized this historic name for modern watches. The 1996-2003 Trilogy collection included a chronograph called Air Command in different versions, and alongside the 2007 introduced new Fifty Fathoms ref 5015 Blancpain also launched a 45mm AirCommand, which was discontinued only a few years later. Both re-incarnations have not really been close to the vintage timepiece, which left an opportunity for the Manufacture to get this gap filled.
The reborn Air Command
There have been no shortcuts this time: Blancpain has chosen to not align the new Air Command with the Fifty Fathoms or Bathyscaphe model families, but develop all components especially for this 42.5mm watch, which is listed under Specialties in the catalogue.
The stainless steel case is designed very close to the 1957 vintage icon, as are the dial and white lacquered hands. Special emphasis was put on the ceramic bezel: the aesthetics match the special appeal of the vintage Bakelite bezel, with finely engraved numerals, arranged in the typical countdown sequence. The case has a fully polished finish and it measures 13.77mm in height.
The SuperLuminova color for dial and hands has been chosen to resemble the appearance of aged tritium, the indices on the bezel match this color beautifully.
When exposed to direct sunlight the black dial reveals an ultra fine sunburst finish, hardly noticeable. Another remarkable detail is the harmony between dial and bezel when it comes to different light conditions. This again shows the attention to every detail Blancpain is well known for.
The Air Command is powered by calibre F388B, a derivative of the 5Hz F385 known from the Bathyscaphe Chronographe and the Villeret Pulsometre Chronographe. The movement was adjusted to support the bi-compax layout on the dial and the absence of a date indication.
The photos do not show the final production version of cal F388B, expect a more closed bridge architecture on the 500 Air Command timepieces that will find their way to the future owners. But the photos show two remarkable features when looking at the backside of the watch: the propellor shaped rotor and the domed crystal. Once I get the opportunity to take photos of the final version, I will update these photos.
How does the Air Command wear on the wrist?
With 42.5mm the new Air Command is right in the sweet spot for a modern aviation chronograph. The nicely shaped lugs turn a bit downwards to allow for a very comfortable experience on the wrist, and the watch has an enormous presence.
It wears just a notch smaller than the Bathyscaphe, the distressed leather strap stays true to the theme of a vintage inspired timepiece. The strap measures 22/20mm and it is fixed with a high polished steel buckle. I can imagine the Air Command looks very good on a variety of straps, and with the 22/20 dimensions the options are endless.
The first Air Command timepieces will find their owners in the last days of 2019. Clearly one of the highlights from this year’s Time to Move, the 500 pieces are supposedly all reserved with the future owners eagerly awaiting them.
A special Thank You goes to Nicolas Fondaneche for allowing me to use his photos of the vintage Air Command in this report.