Last week, we welcomed astronaut Scott Kelly back to Planet Earth following his 342-day mission in space by taking a look at some of his watches – both in flight and on Earth. And many of you expressed some interest in what appeared to be a larger-than-life 51 mm wristwatch. It is in fact very real – developed specifically for the most perilous missions. Today, we go hands-on with the Breitling Emergency (not Kelly’s mind you).
A follow up to the 1995 Emergency, this version (originally introduced as the Emergency II, although the “II” has been dropped) the watch presents an improved personal locator beacon (PLB) capable of transmitting its coordinates on two separate frequencies. The decision to create a dual-frequency version of the original Emergency is a result of the decision, by emergency beacon monitoring agency Cospas-Sarsat, to phase out its satellite monitoring at the long-standard 121.5 MHz aviation emergency frequency – which was also used by the first Breitling Emergency watch. (Cospas-Sarsat is a satellite-based search and rescue system, which has been around since 1982; Cospas is an acronym for “Space System for the Search of Vessels in Distress” in Russian, and Sarsat stands for “Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking.”)
The latest beacon now carries a digital signal on the 406 MHz frequency via Cospas-Sarsat’s worldwide satellite system, on top of an analog signal on the 121.5 MHz frequency, used by search and rescue (SAR) teams to home in on victims at land, air or sea. Cospas-Sarsat originally monitored both frequencies. The FAA in the United States began requiring 121.5 MHz emergency beacons on civilian aircraft in 1973, and though the frequency is still monitored (which is why the Emergency transmits on both) 406 MHz is both longer range and gives better accuracy.
The digital signal also provides additional information, such as the code of the country in which the beacon was registered, and the beacon’s serial number, which is one of the reasons it took Breitling longer than expect to receive the approval of the Federal Communications Commission for a new version of the Emergency.
As long as the device is in working order, I would imagine the package it comes in would matter very little to the men and women putting their lives at risk who might need it. But the few who happen to also collect watches – and adventurers tend to – must be delighted by the one Breitling has created. But before we get into its looks, let’s look at how it works.
In the event of an emergency, the Emergency should be removed from the wrist and both antenna caps unscrewed counter-clockwise and pulled until the cap breaks away from the antenna wire (starting with the antenna placed on the side of the crown).
In order to send out the most reliable signal, the transmitter should be placed outdoors, both antenna sections vertical to the ground, in an area with as much shelter from the wind as possible. Once the rescue is completed, the watch is sent back to Breitling where it is reloaded – free of charge, but only if it was used appropriately. (Breitling, by the way, will sell the watch to non-pilots but they do warn that if you trigger the beacon unnecessarily, you’ll be looking at both a fine, and a pretty big bill for the cost of mounting a needless rescue operation.) To see exactly how the antenna is deployed, have a look at this video from Breitling.
Of course, Breitling did not invent emergency beacon technology. PLBs have been in use for many years, although never in such a compact instrument. Breitling’s told us that all the components found inside the Emergency, with the exception of the rechargeable battery, are made in-house.
And as it turns out, the world’s thinnest dual frequency PLB transmitter still requires quite a bit of space – 51 mm x 21.6 mm at the very least, it if the Emergency is anything to go by (though of course, that includes all the parts necessary for the watch as well as the transmitter).
The new Emergency, like the 1995 original version, was never really meant to be the kind of watch one wears in the hopes of catching the eye of a fellow connoisseur, and triggering a passionate discussion of its aesthetic merits.
Very likely none of that matters to the professionals who seek in a PLB an instrument providing them with a greater sense of security. That said, the Emergency is visibly a Breitling watch, and has its own unique visual impact and even style.
Considering the common alternative for a personal locator beacon – usually, a yellow plastic case – it isn’t difficult to see why the Emergency appeals to guys like Kelly. Despite its monstrous size, it wears very light on the wrist (143.90 grams without the strap according to Breitling) thanks to a titanium case and bracelet construction. And it looks damned good too, size notwithstanding. A satin-brushed finish ensures an appropriately rugged appearance, while the engraved compass scale on the bezel evokes thoughts of adventure (and as well, of course, it might prove useful in a survival situation).
And so what if the antenna cap protrudes from the case? I can’t think of a more tragic death than one caused in part by a beautiful but impractically designed life-saving device. A large, fluted antenna cap, easy to grasp and use, seems a better option than anything smaller.
For obvious reasons, we did not test the device. To ensure you’ll know the Emergency is ready to go if you need it, Breitling offers a docking station with every Emergency that charges the transmitter battery, and tests the PLB simultaneously, so you can be assured it’s ready for use. The Emergency actually has two batteries, by the way – one for the watch movement, and a separate, rechargeable lithium-ion battery for the transmitter.
The oversized numerals at 3, 6, and 9 o’clock enable a quick and easy read of the time, as do the SuperLuminova indexes and hands – although one wonders if the stainless steel numbers couldn’t have been made more visible in the dark as well, for consistency’s sake. The LED window at 12:00 also functions as a watch battery end-of-life indicator (it’ll start flashing when it’s time for a change).
At the top of the article, we mentioned the dual frequency transmitter might be the single most vital function ever presented in a watch, but the Emergency actually has plenty more to offer, including analog and digital time displays with a 24H military-style option included in the latter, date, month, second time zone, countdown timer, alarm and chronograph – all set by a single crown – and all powered by a COSC-certified SuperQuartz chronometer movement, a Breitling-produced, temperature compensated movement ten times more accurate than conventional quartz. (Quartz frequency can vary with changes in temperature and better quality quartz movements are designed to compensate for this.)
Though part of an industry notorious for chasing after records and sometimes pseudo-historical firsts, Breitling’s dual frequency transmitter wristwatch is no gimmick. Five years in the making, it surely represents a major investment, especially for such a niche product.
It’s a measure of Breitling’s commitment to their core audience that they produced the Emergency, and they have seen their efforts rewarded with the seal of approval of the professional community, as Scott Kelly’s collection clearly demonstrates.
The Breitling Emergency: case, titanium, cambered sapphire, glare-proofed both front and back. 51 mm at widest diameter, 21.6 mm thick; water resistance, 50 m; black dial with stainless steel. Movement, thermocompensated SuperQuartz™ movement. The Breitling’s Emergency watch is priced between $15,825 to $18,745 depending on strap and bracelet options, and is available with three dial options – in black, yellow (Kelly’s personal choice) and orange. A limited edition Emergency Night Mission is priced at $18,910. Titanium bracelet. More from Breitling right here.
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