A Pilot’s Impressions of the Omega X-33

By Time Flies

This is a different type of review. It is a story of how I came to appreciate an Omega X-33. In the following story I critique the watch from the standpoint of using it as a “wrist instrument” for my piloting activities. This review is not the standard type we usually see here. But, when have I ever written anything “standard”? I apologize to those who seek a more formal review piece. But, this is the way I know best — to tell a story of how and why I ended up with such a watch. This review was originally posted on another Forum and has not been changed since the original posting date.

The Omega X-33 is an enigma to me. I am still puzzled how such well thought out functions could be cased up in a watch that is both inspired and uninspired.

I figured that would be a pretty good way to start this essay. So, let me tell the story of how I ended up with an X-33 Speedmaster especially after I initially raved about it before its release and then later unmercifully “kicked the poor little pooch” up, down and around.

About eighteen months ago, Hans Zbinden and his group of spies discovered that Omega was working on a new quartz oscillator based multifunction watch. In fact, his intelligence was so good, he even had a picture of a possible prototype. Hans and I really liked the looks of that prototype. It appeared to be a really new idea in the quartz watch realm. Something that caught my eye was what appeared to be screwed-down pushers. It also had a very novel look to it. Hans and I began e-mailing one another and both of us were pretty excited. Later, when Omega released it at Basel during 1998, I still was pretty excited. I got some preview literature from my friend, Mike. Omega changed the design from the prototype picture Hans had provided, but it still sounded good – real good. The functional specs were attractive – big digital readouts; multiple functions and ones that would be particularly attractive to a pilot (one who actually drives planes!); a super loud alarm (I have slept with an alarm watch of one type or another for 30 years); glare-proofed sapphire crystal (actually very, very useful in the cockpit); Kevlar strap (neat); titanium case (no glare and lightweight) and it was an Omega Speedy descendant (I liked that since I have been in love with the Speedmaster Professional for 30 years). I was disappointed in the water resistance (3 ATM). But, hey, I don’t do seaplanes and I sure as hell will not be worrying about my watch if I do an emergency dump in the water. And if I “buy the farm” after hitting the water, I am going to need something to keep me cool, not something to keep time.

Needless to say, I was pumped up for that watch. Then, I was informed the list price would be much higher than I would ever have imagined. A quartz watch for around $2600? — you’ve gotta be kidding me. I was so bummed by the price and the fact that the price was not negotiable from list immediately after its release. Supply and demand. So like any decent watch freak, I got down on the watch. I still had not actually touched one. But, hey, if Omega is going to put it out of reach given the list price, then there is but one thing to do – convince yourself it is a piece of junk. So, for over a year, I sneered, laughed and snickered when the X-33 was mentioned here and elsewhere. What a joke – the X-33. Sure…. it was developed with the consultation of aviators. Yeah, right, it’s going to Mars (well, I still don’t believe that one). And, Oh boy, the box is covered with genuine space suit material – gee, I’ll use that to patch up my EVA suit before my next shuttle flight. No way, not interested, silly thing……

Last spring my son, who is also a pilot, went to NYC with a group from his high school. Spooky thought, a bunch of kids from western Virginia running around Manhattan and buying three dollar cans of soda and gosh knows what else from “vendors” on the street corners. So, I called my friend Mike., the manager of of a well known watch retailer and said, if Matt stops in, steer the kid in the right directions! Hey, wait a minute, now THERE is a spooky thought! Sure enough, Matt and a few of his friends stopped to see Mike and the kids are dazzled by the watches that cost more than fifteen bucks. Matt is already initiated into the watch “thing” and so he checks out the new Basel releases. Yep, he is that astute when it comes to watches. Mike, of course, is a really good friend (and, likely sees a future customer…heh, heh) and points Matt to the X-33. Mike and Matt and the gang later take a walk down 57th or whatever and Matt calls me on Mike’s cell phone……”Dad, I’m telling ya, you gotta see the X-33…it was made for flying”. Yeah sure…..Matt is just on a high walking along with “Uncle Mike”. Still no sale to this wise fellow.

A year later……..I casually mention to Mike that I am still trying to find the perfect flying “watch”. I hesitate to use the term “watch” since I am looking for an instrument. Something to really use purposefully. I don’t want jewelry or a fine mechanical piece. I am not interested in heritage or in-house/out-house or hand applied this or that. Damn it, I am still looking for something that works like a charm for me when I am flying. I want an instrument, you know, an instrument…… I don’t care what the label says ….It can be made by little green men. I don’t care. I have had all sorts of mechanical watches that I have used for flying. Chronographs with little subdials don’t cut it for me. I can’t read those things. I want something I can read, REALLY read in the dark. I want timing functions in BIG numerals. I want to see the time at a glance. I don’t want to have twist and turn my wrist to see the digital display. I want digital and analog time displays. I need glare proofing. It has to be really shock resistant. Mark XII’s don’t cut it. Flieger’s chronos don’t cut it. I know, I’ve owned them. I’ve owned alls sorts of Pilot’s, Aero’s, Flight’s, Flyer’s, Air’s…..had all of them at one time or another. I’ve used fine mechanicals, lousy mechanicals, quartz, and watches energized by squirrels on a treadmill…. Tried ’em, evaluated ’em and gave up on most of them. I’ve owned a zillion Seiko’s, Casio’s, Citizens that didn’t cut it for my applications. I don’t care if they are called “Blue Angel” or “Super fighter jock “, “Combat flyer”, Flieger or pilot’s watches. Those names don’t make them PILOT’s watches. Damn, can’t somebody get this game right? Did anyone ever ask pilots what they really like in a watch? Gee, with all the great technology, someone should be able to do this. Can’t they? Up to this time, and two-gazillion watches later, the IWC Aquatimer has been the best mechanical non-chrono I have used in the cockpit and the Speedy Professional has been the best mechanical chrono – both for the same reason — BIG and their legibility and reliability are terrific.

But now I want more than that (I am creating this “order” over the phone to Mike)– I really want digital and multiple functions, including an alarm and simultaneous count-down, mission and chronographic timing. I need Zulu time and local time. I want an effective alarm so this watch will be my “waker-upper”. And, I want exceptional night visibility — not little, fuzzy “glow in the dark” phosphorescent painted markers. It’s gotta being able to be bumped and I don’t care if it gets banged up. I want all the functions readily accessible – I don’t want to have to twist a crown (been there and done that with the Breitling Aerospace – not bad, but turning a crown to access functions is about as dumb as making you look over your shoulder to see the airspeed indicator). And, finally, I don’t want a bunch of crap on the dial – no slide rules, no gibberish about its specifications, point of manufacture and so on. Just give me some big white hands to quickly view local time. I want BIG digital displays – not those little Citizen thingies or dials with liiiiittle windows with liiiiittle numbers peeking at me. I am 51, I wear glasses when I fly, and I am tempermental about things that don’t work well.

Mike said….”Greg, hey, you may want to check out the X-33….. I know you said….but, man, I’m telling you…..just take a look”

OK. What the heck, send it to me. Let me take a look. When the package arrived, I carefully opened the spacesuit material covered box since I did not want to damage the material. Recall that I need that stuff for patching my EVA suit before my mission to Mars. Upon seeing the X-33 I was at once under-whelmed and overwhelmed. I loved the “screen” on it, the hands were great and jumped out at you, the titanium was nice, the Kevlar strap looked interesting, but the bezel sucked. It looked cheap with the shiny stainless insert especially when contrasted next to the titanium body. I reminded myself I was just checking it out, so don’t get too judgmental too soon. Let’s see how this puppy operates. Take a look at the manual. Nice manual — very clear and comprehensive. I looked at the specs first:

Movement: ETA 988.431 — Omega caliber number 1666 (great! So what the hell is that?)

  • Type — Quartz multifunction (good, but I already figured that out)
  • Dimensions — 13 1/4 ligne, 30mm
  • Precision — +/- 0.1 seconds per day
  • Jewels — 9 rubies
  • Power Reserve — 2 year to 3 yrs depending upon use of alarm and light
  • Battery — lithium
  • Light — 8 LUX (wow, that’s bright!)
  • Sound intensity — 80 dB minimum (that ought to wake the dead!)
  • Water resistance — 3 ATM, about 100 ft. (eh, OK, not great, not terrible, just sort of so-so)
  • Shock resistance — 3,500 g’s maximum (3,500 g’s!? — Wow! I guess I can drop it!)

I set the functions. Wow, I’m impressed. It was logical, easy, does not require a manual. I started to fiddle with the watch. Hey, I’m not sure I’m gonna like these curved digital readouts, but man they are BIG. I can read those things without my “reading” glasses. Test the alarm……Holy, s…… every dog in town perked up their ears at that! Yeah, it will wake me up in the morning. Nice weight for a watch that is 40mm in diameter — good old titanium. The pushers look a little funky though. They sort of stand out from the case. I like the second hand. Nice little red pointer on the end and I’ll be darn it is perfectly aligned with the seconds chapter marks. I see it uses Super Luminova on the hands and for the minute chapter markers. Who cares, since it has a backlight. Gotta test the backlight that is based upon electro-luminescence technology like Indiglo. Gosh is the thing gonna look like a Timex at night? I’ll see when the sun goes down. Well, enough of this, let’s FLY. I drove out to the airport with my son and went for spin and decided to test the new toy to see if it was gonna fulfill some my demands. This flight involved both day and night flying and I purposely did some dead reckoning navigation using it and did some approach timing. In other words, I really used the count-down timer, the mission timer (total elapsed time), the chronograph function, the local and GMT time functions (Zulu time for interpreting weather reports and for flight plan filing) and, of course the light. Just to humor myself, I set the alarm for the time to my destination point. The reason for the humor was I am flying with a headset on and the 152 is noisy since the engine is “right there in your face”.

So, what did the in-use test indicate. Bottom line — best damn wrist flying instrument I ever used, bar none. Every demand I made in dictating what I wanted in a wrist mounted timing instrument for flying and just casual wear usage was met. Every one. The first thing I noticed is why the digital display is curved. Heck, you don’t have to turn your wrist to read the display. Keep your hand on the yoke, glance down at the big digital readout and there is the information oriented properly without turning the wrist or your head to read it! Hey, there was method to the madness — maybe, or maybe not it was a lucky mistake. Who cares. It works like a charm. OK, next call in the flight plan, check Zulu time — hey just press the crown — no crown twirling, no pushers needed. Just flip through the functions by pushing the crown. Boom, boom, boom, you’ve got what you need and it all comes up in BIG, easy to read numbers. Love it! Hit the mission timer when you take off and it is recording total engine time for fuel burn calculations for the trip. Hit the countdown timer and you have time to your destination. Use the chronograph function for waypoint and approach timing. Need something else? Just punch one button — the crown. I’m impressed. The dial IS legibility. The dictionary could just say “X-33 dial” for the definition of the word “legibility”. At this point I’m liking this thing– a lot. But, I sure wish that bezel looked better. Who cares. I am not evaluating this thing for how it looks, but rather how it performs. Sun is setting. Matt and I are entering night flight. The 152 has one little red light mounted on the ceiling which shines a dim red light on the instrument panel. For night flying I always carry a small red flashlight strung around my neck and use a green/blue light mounted on my headset to augment the cabin “red light”. Time to check out the backlight. HOLY s…..! This thing is great! It utilizes the blue/green light I prefer over red. Red light washes out colors on sectionals and temporarily disturbs visual acuity at medium distances — like reading your instrument panel — and reading the instrument panel is a very useful activity for a pilot! Man, check out this light! The hands jump out at you. The digital information is as clear as bell on clear, windless day. But, wait a minute…..hey, this thing is so bright I found I can use it as a small flashlight. Let’s check. Sure enough, I hit the light button (one of the pushers), turn my wrist and I can read the print on the instrument panel under the circuit breakers. Hot damn. Neat. Another accident in the design process or something someone thought about? Who cares. It sure does the job.

Well, as I continued to be really impressed with how this watch worked, I began to wonder if Omega REALLY did consult aviators in its design. They said that it was five years in the works because of that consultation and beta testing of prototypes. Maybe they really did do that. Maybe it is just advertising. Even if they did not, it sure works like they had some “aviation input”.

Now we are getting near our destination on this flight. What the hell…!! . Stall horn? What is that? It’s the alarm I set to indicate the approximate time for descent to our destination. I can’t be hearing that silly little thing through my headset, can I? Pop the headset and damn…..yeah, it’s the alarm. It’s not blaring loud with the headset on, but sure enough I heard it. I would not hear it over radio communications coming in through the headset, but with just the engine noise and a quiet cockpit its easily discernable. Cool.

The next day, I called Mike and told him the X-33 is a winner for me. It really is an aviation instrument. I’m, gonna keep it. I really, really like it.

After almost three months, this watch has not failed to impress me for its functionality. My demands may be different than most others. But, if you are an aviator, you might consider the X-33. This thing has not lost or gained anything in three months — it is +/- 0. I remember seeing some specs for the X-33 which indicated a very wide temperature range for its accuracy specification (-20 C to +70 C). I did some detective work. Sure enough, this movement is temperature compensated. During my three month testing of it, I have visited some very hot and some quite cold places. And, its accuracy has remained spot on.

The pushers, which at first I did not care for, are great from an ergonomic standpoint. Easy to use with gloves on and easy to “feel for” without looking. They make sense to me now. The digital display cannot be beat and it is beyond me why someone has not used the BIG, curved display before (In fact, Omega had with its Seamaster Multifunction– but the movements and functionality are different between this watch and the X-33). The Kevlar strap? Well, I really like it except for the fact that it is somewhat stiff with a built-in curvature. That curvature makes it wonderfully comfortable since it is like a Kevlar bracelet in effect. But, the strap does not fold flat. I also wish Omega has not put those little ridges on the strap, but I think they act like “stays” which help maintain the curvature. They ain’t bad. I just like flat straps. I bought the titanium bracelet for it and wore it for about a month. It’s OK. I like the Kevlar strap better and have switched back to that. The bracelet is like a Seamaster bracelet not a Speedmaster bracelet and is not as finely adjustable. The titanium finish hardness on the X-33 case and bracelet is nowhere near the hardness of the IWC GST series titanium finishes. It will scratch and mar. But, hey, for me, I don’t care what an “instrument” looks like, as long as it works great. In fact, I have always been enamored of those watches of mine that I ACTUALLY use for flying that are scratches and dinged. At least somebody won’t think I do my flying from seat 5D or from my chair parked in front of a computer flight simulator! Finally, the bezel still hurts. I have not grown used to it. I have not learned to love it. It is the thing that makes this watch such an enigma. I would have not even put a bezel function on the watch. I have timing available in the functions of the watch, I don’t need rough timing from a rotatable bezel. At least they did not clutter the dial with a slide rule (although there is one and only one watch I really like with a circular slide rule — the Breitling Cosmonaute — but that is a whole different story for some other time). I would have kept the X-33 design really “clean” — just all case and dial, no rotatable bezel and certainly not a shiny stainless bezel insert contrasting against the dull finish of the gray titanium.

While the X-33 is not the prettiest watch (primarily because of the bezel). It is certainly the best aviation piece I have ever used in terms of total functionality; the implementation of those functions; the quality of the quartz movement (temperature compensation; shock resistance — 3500g’s — is that a misprint?); and, great accuracy). I wish the water resistance was greater, but I can live with that. It is overpriced at the manufacturer’s suggested list, but if you can get a good deal, it becomes “reasonable” if you really have a need for multifunction capability that is designed for an activity like flying, sailing or something similar.

It is interesting to me that the whole pilot, aviation “thing” is built around advertising of vintage technology. Yeah, those early chronographs were great — thirty or more years ago. But that is old technology. It was the latest at the time and that is why aviators used it. Now, we have new technology for flying. Those technologies are delivered by GPS, HUDS, flat panel displays, new-generation autopilots, GPS/COM interfaces, moving maps, fly-by-wire, computers, and, yes, QUARTZ based oscillators in watches or wrist attached timing devices. The X-33 is one of those new applications of a more modern technology. This is a practical device for flying. A mechanical chronograph with analog displays is, dated technology, imprecise, difficult to use and terribly impractical for actual flight use given what else is available to us. They may look neat, be wonderfully well made, have some sentimental value, and even be touted as pilot’s watches. But, they are archaic and do not/cannot provide the multitude of information that is so useful for flight purposes.

Yep, I have a bunch of mechanical “pilot’s” pieces. I love them for what they are. I wear them and enjoy them. They have a sense of history in design and purpose. But, modern aviation wrist instruments they’re not. Yes, I can navigate with them. But, the X-33 (or any quartz multifunction watch) does a much better job of it and gives me a lot more information in a more legible manner, with greater precision in timing and with greater toughness. In fact, I use GPS most of the time anyway, but the X-33 is the best damn aviation “back-up” wrist instrument I have tested.

Now, if they would just get rid of the damn bezel……….And, I still don’t think it’s going to Mars…..but, hey, thanks for the patches for my EVA spacesuit…..heh,heh. Yeah, it’s a design enigma, but it really does the job and does it right. Somebody at Omega did their homework in ergonomics and aviation requirements, and I thank you for that.

Check out the Omega website at www.omega.ch

The author’s comments in this review are his own opinions. The best available facts were used to compile this information at the time of writing. Manufacturers change specifications and some manufacturers do not reveal detailed information about engineering details and manufacturing processes. I cannot be responsible for any inadvertent inaccuracies that may have occurred in the research and writing of this article.

Copyright, 1999, G. J. Buhyoff