May 17, 2018

The Real Pilots Watch - Heuer Luftforsvaret

There are only a few times in a collector’s lifetime that you come across a truly rare piece. This specific Heuer Luftforsvaret, SG 1550, bears the history of not only a man, but also that of a community and a country.

Bodø May 27th, 1940:

The negligible city of Bodø [boːdoe] is situated above the Arctic Circle at 67°North. It survived for decades as a coastal city on fisheries and as a trade harbour, and at the time it has a population of about 6000.
May 27th is the day that will change the city and its community for ever. Bodø is bombed to pieces by the Luftwaffe. Over half of the population lost their homes and most of the city’s commercial buildings were lost.

After the war Bodø was rebuilt by the Allied Forces who spend huge amounts on infrastructure and military installations. Just South of the city they establish a massive military air base. Bodø’s proximity close to the border of the Soviet Union makes it an important strategic city for the defence of Norway and of the USA. The Americans want a large base close to the borders of Soviet for several reasons.
One is to keep an eye on Soviet air traffic since flights from Soviet towards the US will pass across the northern part of Norway.
The other reason is that the city can serve as a possible host for armed forces in case of a conflict.
At the brink of the Cold War, Bodø is now one of the most important bases for the Allied Forces on the Northern flank of NATO.

Bodø August 9th, 1974:

Svenn Oddli Heuer Luftforsvaret SG1550 Eggebeck Germany

Svenn Oddli arrive at Bodø Main Air Station (MAS). He is a 27 years old lieutenant at the time and have spent the last 7 years in training with United States Air Force (USAF) and Royal Norwegian Air Force (RNoAF). He has already accumulated plenty of hours in the F-5 Freedom Fighter before joining the 334 Squadron in Bodø. On arrival, the young lieutenant received his personal gear: flight suits, gloves, helmet, oxygen mask, parachute, life vest, combat knife, survival kit and a watch. A Heuer Flyback Chronograph, the SG 1550. I’ll let you know all about that watch a little later.

-Bodø Main Air Station was an attractive base to serve at. And Bodø was characterized by the strong military presence in and around the city evolving it into a metropolis of the north, he says.

-The 70s represent the most tense and active years of the cold war era in terms of Soviet military activity at sea and in air. Norwegian readiness was tested several times a week by Soviet air traffic passing North Cape and flying parallel to and following the Norwegian territorial border. They rarely crossed the line of airspace infringement, but they usually changed course coming towards our coastal line.

Svenn Oddli CF-104 intercept russian reconnaissance aircraft

CF-104 Starfighter

starfighter CF-104 334 skvadron

637 LN-STF CF-104 Starfighter

The 334 Squadron was equipped with F-104 Starfighters to quickly scramble and be airborne to cut off Soviet flights coming close to the Norwegian airspace.

-The Canadian built CF-104 we had in Bodø was an advanced and well equipped airplane for its time. Avionics and both offensive and defensive weapons systems were cutting-edge.
The Starfighter had a bad reputation safety wise because of a large amount of accidents, sadly also with loss of pilots’ life. But you must keep in mind the large number of aircrafts in service around the globe. The F-104 was the backbone of NATOs Air Forces throughout the 60s and the 70s, Mr. Oddli says today.

Asked about his own feelings towards the aircraft he says:
-I found the aircraft to be very stable but demanding, partly because of the short wing span that demanded high speeds at take-off and landing, but also because it had a somewhat limited manoeuvrability caused by a larger swing radius due to the high speed and small wings.

-The strength of the Starfighter was its brutal engine that gave an unrivalled top-speed and climbing ability making the aircraft capable of doing interception missions against intruders at high altitudes. With a top-speed more than two times the speed of sound (>Mach 2) no one could out-fly the F-104, he continues.

RNoAF CF-104

Safety of the Starfighter

-All fighters, no matter the aircraft, will be operated at high speeds and at low altitudes. At the same time the pilot will have to perform other concentration demanding assignments. That be observations, tight manoeuvring or weapons’ delivery. In a scenario like that the F-104 would most definitely work a lesser margin of safety than smaller and more manoeuvrable aircrafts. The Starfighter is not any different from other machines. If you follow the instructions and learn its limitations, the risk is acceptable, says Mr. Oddli.

After WW2, the advanced jet fighter came into operational use with Air Forces all over the World. Training and operation of these new high speed airplanes was often demanding, due to technical defects and shortcomings.
New operational concepts developed throughout the Cold War period. The toll was high, and a large number of aircraft and pilots were lost.

German Luftwaffe got a lot of negative focus as around 200 of their Starfighters were lost in accidents. However, as Germany possessed almost 1.000 F-104s, their accident rate was not higher than most other nations operating the same aircraft.

The Royal Norwegian Air Force operated a total of 45 Starfighter F-104s. Between 1970 to 1983 they lost 13 aircrafts.

-Within a comparatively small Air Force, like the Norwegian, most of the personnel establish close personal relationship to each other. The loss of good colleagues and friends hit you very hard. And during the whole Cold War period these meaningless losses put the darkest shadows on our work to stand up and be ready to defend our country, freedom and democracy, Mr. Oddli concludes today.

CF-104 starfighter NATO northern flank

Heuer SG1550

The Heuer SG1550 is a truly iconic piece. Known to most as the Heuer Bundeswehr it is a sturdy 42 mm Flyback Chronograph. The history of the “Bund” is multifaceted and well documented.
This article classifies the different watches neatly.

The Heuer SG1550 is not a rare watch. You can easily find a good-looking piece. Still there are differences to these watches coming to both aesthetics, mechanics and value. And the Heuer Luftforsvaret is the rarest of them all.

Heuer Luftforsvaret

Heuer Luftforsvaret SG1550 militarywatch norgesnato

Usually driven by a Valjoux 230 movement and a clean “T over 6” dial without the usual 3H logo. What is most unique about Heuer Luftforsvaret is the engraving on the back. A serial number and year of issue below Luftforsvaret. The serial on the case back should ideally match the number between the lugs. Army Watchmakers handled watches coming in for service or repair without regard to matching up the numbers. So some watches lack this feature.

It is not known why RNoAF would issue a Flyback Chronograph to its pilots back in the early 70s. Mr. Oddli says he never used the watch for navigational purposes. He would rather use a large dashboard Chronograph in the fighter.
I believe that the purchase of this watch may have been part of an equipment deal with our allies. My guess is that there was a wish to have a uniformly equipped force throughout NATO. The West-Germans used the Heuer SG1550 in their Armed Forces, the Bundeswehr, so Norwegian Armed Forces would have to find a place for it. Pilots need a watch. I guess it was that simple.

We know that RNoAF commissioned a lot of watches. Not only issued to F-5 and F-104 pilots, but also to helicopter pilots and to ground crew. Watches have also been sold from surplus equipment storage. Illegally of course.

Norwegian collectors have catalogued and documented the known pieces that have surfaced at auctions or among collectors. To this date (May 17th 2018) we know of 38 pieces. All issued between 1972 and 1978. We believe that there are still a couple of watches lying around in the desk drawers of former pilots.

Heuer Luftforsvaret S/N 8904/73

Heuer Luftforsvaret SG1550 militarywatch

Heuer Luftforsvaret SG1550 militarywatch

Mr. Oddli’s watch came into his hands when he came to Bodø in 1974, and it was amongst the personal gear he took with him when he left service on Sept 21st, 1978.

According to his own records the watch has been on his wrist with him on combat missions with the CF-104 as well as regular flights as a pilot or backseat on the F-5 Freedom Fighter, F-16 Fighting Falcon, P-3B Orion, C-130 Hercules, Twin Otter, Saab Safir, Bird Dog, Cub, as well as a passenger on military helicopters Sea King and Bell UH-1B.

When he left Capt. Oddli had nearly 1.000 combat missions on the CF-104 before he went into civilian aviation in 1978 and became a pilot for Scandinavian Airlines (SAS).
He stayed on in the Reserve Forces and left service for good as a Lt.Col in 1995. Staying on in SAS were he was Chief Pilot for almost two decades before retirement in 2008.
In civilian aviation Mr. Oddli flew DC-8, DC-9, MD-80, MD-90, Airbus A340 and Airbus A330.

Mr. Oddli

Svenn Oddli CF-104 637, 2017

Learning to know Mr. Oddli and talking to him about his period in the RNoAF as a fighter pilot and his later career in civilian traffic is rewarding. Mostly, for an aviation geek like myself, it is exciting to hear all the stories. Mr. Oddli have first hand combat experiences in a period at the height of the Cold War. He was also in active duty when there were unprecedented technological advancements of flight in both military and civilian aviation.

About his relationship with the watch he states that it was among two pieces that he for sentimental reasons brought on many of his firsts. His Heuer Luftforsvaret and an original WW2 Spitfire bomber jacket was with him on his first flights on a new aircraft, or his first take-off or landing on a new airport.

S/N 8904/73 was with him on the first take-off ever from OSL Airport’s new runway in 1997. The Airport was still under construction and set to open a year later. Among the passengers on the test flight was the prime minister of Norway.

MD90 OSL first takeoff

Final thoughts

To me, a Norwegian watch collector, this watch is the ultimate grail. It has all the attractive traits of a collectible watch. Heuer is a coveted brand; the watch has known history from origin; it was an "official" military pilots watch from an important time in our Norwegian history; and the engravings on the case back makes it one of a kind.
Further this specific watch has a nice patina. Stunning ochre yellow hands and cool green number indexes are customary for these watches. Case, bezel and crown shows a life well lived.
Untouched by watchmaker hands it doesn't run very well if I am going to be honest. Except for the flyback chronograph mechanism that surprised me with an awesome and supersmooth feel to it.
The Heuer Luftforsvaret is a must-have piece in my collection.

Heuer Luftforsvaret SG1550 militarywatch