One sleepless night in 2014 I was meandering around the internet looking for no watch in particular, when I came across a European classified ad for a “1960 Breitling”. I knew immediately from the blurry photo it was a Breitling 817… an elusive military watch which at the time was known only to a small number of collectors. These watches were produced for and distributed to a small number of helicopter pilots in the Italian Army, or Esercito Italiano. Although the listing was incorrect (it said “1960”, yet these watches were not produced until the 1970’s), the offering appeared to be a very correct full 817 set in immaculate condition, complete with copies of military documents. The price was reasonable, so after a lowball offer was countered with a not-so-flexible response, a risky Paypal transaction between strangers was initiated and the watch was to be shipped the following day.
While nervously waiting to see if this thing would show up, I did some detective work. I knew two details about the original owner: His name (it was engraved on the caseback under the military-issue number), and that he’d recently traded the watch for a motorcycle. Only trouble was, his name was ridiculously common in Italy, and a google search yielded hundreds of unique hits. After a few days of emailing any and all Italians who shared the pilot’s name, a helpful Tuscan photographer shared a tip:
“Hello, I’m sorry but I am not the man you are looking for. I did a little research and I believe I have found him. I think it’s him because there are a lot of coincidences.”
He shared a link to a motorcycle enthusiast message board, and after a couple weeks waiting for a response, I successfully established contact with the pilot.
I had many questions for him – who was the pilot who owned this watch? where did he fly? what has he seen? Also, since most of the information available on this reference was heresay, I wanted to maximize the opportunity to get some information from a direct source.
I have translated selections of his commentary:
“About 30 years ago, our Command ordered a batch of watches from Breitling for helicopter pilots. Navigation then in Italy was based primarily on “dead reckoning” (bow, time, speed). Then, over the years, the navigation technology has completely replaced the reckoning and the advent of GPS has sent this type of watch into retirement. A few months ago I found a man who wanted to trade a bike for a valuable watch and so, since I am a motorcycle enthusiast, I made the exchange.
All watches have a serial number on the case back, which corresponds to the pilot who was given the watch, to avoid an exchange with other colleagues or to prevent it from being illegally sold.”
I asked him what he knew about the distribution of these watches and their numbers:
“On many occasions watches have been commissioned for special requirements (birthdays, pensions, etc.) Or missions (Lebanon, Kosovo, Bosnia, etc). Those were mostly watches purchased and given to the staff as a gift or prize. But the issue of these specific Breitling watches as equipment to pilots only lasted a few years, so considering the small number of pilots in the Air Force of the Army in those years, there must only be a few hundred watches issued.”
When asked about specific duties and helicopters of the units that received the 817:
“Italy with its armed forces after World War II has not been able to do armed intervention outside the borders of the state. And even in this case, our Constitution provides only for self-defense of the territory. In the period that you ask about (1970-1980) we had little international business to address. Only at the end of the decade, specifically 1978, were we called to intervene in Lebanon to support UN forces (UNIFIL).
The tasks that the Armed Forces perform in case of war are known to everyone, but lets focus instead on what we normally do at home? In addition to training, we preserve human life when required. I try to explain myself better: if there is an earthquake, a flood, a fire, or even to save a single individual… we are ready to work day and night.”
Some further research revealed that the pilot had recently rescued two mountaineers stranded at 2,500 feet. The German mountaineers had been reported missing and were sure to perish without help. The difficult landing and ensuing rescue took place in the dead of night under the assistance of night vision. The original owner of my new watch was later awarded a Bronze Cross of Merit for the successful rescue.
Some time before our final communication, I told the pilot that since I would be wearing his watch now… I was curious to know who he really was. His response:
“About who I am there is little to say. I am one of many who does his job. It’s fascinating… after so many years it becomes routine. My story is special to be able to live with a family who I love and who loves me.”
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