Watches: A look at Michael Crichton’s Omega flightmaster, a jet age watch

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on August 15, 2019.

The thematic motif of colour-coded hands and pushers would look right at home in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. Photos by Bloomberg

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There is something about the Omega flightmaster that has prevented it from garnering mainstream admiration from the watch-collecting community. The “f” in flightmaster is not a typo, either. It is the only model produced by Omega to feature a lowercase leading letter in its name. It certainly enjoys a minor cult following, but it has not earned nearly the same sort of admiration from the watch community as the Speedmaster or Seamaster series, although the movement — the calibre 910 — is based on the same calibre 861 inside, and features the same triple-register layout as the Speedmaster. While it never went to the moon with Nasa, it was worn by cosmonauts. Maybe it is the offbeat case design, or the lack of resemblance to any other pilot’s watch (or any watch for that matter), putting the design in a strange no-man’s land. Either way, it is a relatively under-the-radar watch.

But it is exactly the kind of watch that might appeal to a ‘70s sci-fi nerd. The design even looks like a spaceship. The thematic motif of colour-coded hands and pushers would look right at home in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. It turns out the flightmaster did indeed appeal to the type of prolific author that wrote ‘70s science fiction, too.

While the exact story of the purchase is unknown, this flightmaster ref 145.026 was owned by Michael Crichton, perhaps to commemorate his first feature film debut, Westworld. Crichton is a household name, for the wild success of the 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park, which was directed by Steven Spielberg based on the novel by Crichton. Twenty years earlier, Crichton had “1973” along with his initials and “Westworld” engraved on the caseback of this flightmaster. The engraving leaves the McDonnell Douglas DC-8 that appears on the entire flightmaster line from 1969 to 1977 totally intact.

Crichton may be the most famous for Jurassic Park, but much like the flightmaster, his lesser-known work has a strong cult following. Jack Forster is a fan of The Andromeda Strain, published in ‘69, for instance. Crichton attended Harvard Medical School; his studies often informed his writing. A common theme in his work is exploring the dangers of pushing the boundaries of biotechnology. The original Westworld, and even the 2016 TV series, are great examples of the sort of genre that Crichton helped popularise. The Westworld from ‘73 was one of the first feature films to use 2D CGI effects. Again, like the flightmaster, his work was conceptually far ahead of its time — while also being very much of its time aesthetically.

Crichton was a master at using his grasp of medicine, technology and science in general to make the implausible seem inevitable. Stephen King once said, of his work, “As a pop novelist, he was divine. A Crichton book was a headlong experience driven by a man who was both a natural storyteller and fiendishly clever when it came to verisimilitude; he made you believe that cloning dinosaurs wasn’t just over the horizon but possible tomorrow. Maybe today.”

Paradoxically, he was also heavily influenced by the new age movement of the ‘70s. In his memoir Travels, published in 1988, he documents his experiences dabbling in astral projection and meditation. He ponders what it means to explore one’s inner self:

“I went to Africa. You can go to Africa. You may have trouble arranging the time or the money, but everybody has trouble arranging something. I believe you can travel anywhere if you want to badly enough. And I believe the same is true of inner travel. You don’t have to take my word about chakras or healing energy or auras. You can find about them for yourself if you want to. Don’t take my word for it. Be as sceptical as you like. Find out for yourself.”

It is a stretch, but again, I cannot help but to see this sort of thinking embodied in the metal of the flightmaster. It was designed for “intercontinental travellers.” It oozes ‘70s style, and it just seems like such a natural fit for Crichton. Ultimately, as collectors, should not we strive to find that one watch that absolutely personifies us?

The flightmaster was introduced in 1969 as an answer to the demands of the proliferation of jet travel. The jet age saw propeller-driven airliners replaced with turbine engines that allowed the planes to fly further, faster, and non-stop to destinations across the globe. Time zones presented a horological problem for pilots that the flightmaster would solve. The watch was initially released with an am/pm indicator featuring a bold shade of green at the 9 o’clock position, in 1969. That function was replaced in 1970 with a running seconds counter like you would find on a standard Speedmaster.

Again, Speedmasters of the same vintage shared the same base calibre 861 movement, although the running seconds flightmaster model is referred to as a calibre 911. Crichton’s watch features a running seconds counter, and since the caseback indicates 1973, we know it is a calibre 911 and given the year inscribed on the caseback, its ref 145.026. The Calibre 911 saw two references, 145.026 and 145.036. The main differences are slightly different case dimensions, the gasket holding the crystal in place, and radial polishing (145.026) versus concentric polishing (145.036).

The collector who found this flightmaster was browsing the vintage watch stalls in New York City’s Diamond District, and asked the dealer to inspect what looked like a flightmaster in particularly good nick. He picked it up and noticed an engraving that was rather unusual, and of course, being a sci-fi fan, knew who it most likely belonged to. He paid the seller’s asking price for a flightmaster in great condition without bargaining. The dealer was none the wiser about the suspected provenance of the watch.

Michael Crichton passed away in 2008, leaving an incredible legacy and body of work behind. However, the producer of Westworld, Paul Lazurus, is still alive. The collector emailed pictures of the watch to Lazurus, and sure enough, it was the same watch that Michael had worn. The flightmaster was already a special watch to those in the know, but this specific example took on a whole new dimension of importance.

Throughout his career, Crichton was known as a serious collector in the watch community, with a particular passion for Rolex. His collection grew alongside his accolades. He was 31 when Westworld was released. The film forces us to consider the abstract concepts of free will, sentience, and escapism, but ultimately, it is a bold warning about what can happen when new technology is implemented, and spreads without careful consideration of the unintended (or sometimes intended) consequences by those who developed the technology. These days we volunteer an incredible amount of information to our technology-fuelled watches. Our heart rate, our passwords, our sleeping habits, our financial information, even every little thing we say is being listened to by our smartwatch.

Let this funky flightmaster serve as a reminder: Crichton warned us back in 1973. — Bloomberg


This article was originally published by on Hodinkee.