Which collector has never been interested in military watches, and more specifically, in aviation chronographs? The Airain Type 20 is not the most famous, nor the most sought-after. But it is not the least interesting. Moreover, the model that I am going to present to you has a short history of restoration which makes it one of the watches I care about the most.
The Type 20 appellation
The appellation Type 20 characterises watches designed in accordance with specifications drawn up in the 50’s by the Ministry of Defence in order to provide reliable watches adapted to the missions of French pilots.
The main characteristic of this chronograph is its Flyback function, that allows to reset and relaunch the tachymetric hand without any stop or interruption. Air navigation is indeed carried out by a combination of headings and the length of time these headings are held. For air missions, the army needed to equip its pilots with chronographs capable of being reset in the blink of an eye when passing over the radio beacons, while taking he next heading. In 1956, a more demanding set of specifications was drawn up, leading to the conception of the Type 21. It’s quite easy to find on the web the above extracts. On the other hand I was’nt able to find any picture or extract of the original type 20 specifications.
I’m not going to tell the complete history of Type 20, on which there are many reference articles. You will find some links at the end of the article. The most famous Type 20 is probably the Breguet, despite the fact it doesn’t really respect the whole specifications of the French ministry. I’ll come back to this point a little later. In this article context, you just have to keep in mind that Dodane has been one of the companies selected by the Defence Ministry. From 1960 to 1980, Dodane delivered watches under three brands: Dodane, Chronofixe, and Airain.
Unlike Dodane and Chronofixe chronographs, dedicated to French Air Force pilots, as far as I know, Airain watches have been (exclusively ?) attributed to the pilots of another French army corps, the ALAT (Aviation Légère de l’Armée de Terre), the army light aviation.
ALAT short history
The ALAT (Army Light Aviation) has its origins in the ALOA (Light Artillery Observation Aviation), which was created during the Second World War within the Army. It was formed at the end of the Indochina war and at the beginning of the Algerian conflict in 1954. This autonomy of the Army in the use of airspace was not always looked upon favorably by the French Air Force, creating unproductive tensions in the staffs. On a few occasions, the Air Force tried unsuccessfully to regain control. The ALAT is and will remain an Army corps.
During the 30 years of ALOA‘s existence, missions have spontaneously diversified, far beyond the observation on behalf of the artillery, guided by the needs of the field: surveillance, reconnaissance, evacuation of wounded, transport of equipment, parachuting…
During the Algerian conflict, the development and agility of the helicopter on the rugged and mountainous terrain of Algeria further contributed to the widening of the field of intervention to serve as “flying HQ, radio relay, guiding hunting and “trosols” [Ndr Jerry: “trosol” stands for “Troupe au sol“, which means troop on the ground] route reconnaissance, convoy escort, target search, area surveillance, VIP transport, liaison, medical evacuation …”. This versatility of the helicopter will lead to the gradual abandonment of light observation aircraft. In 1958, the Artillery Observation Aviation Groups (GOA) of the former ALOA logically changed their names to Army Light Aviation Groups (GALAT).
Thus in 1961, a first divisional group equipped with Alouettes armed with SS 11 missiles was formed. 1961 brings us back to the subject of this article: this period corresponds more or less to the first allocations of Airain Type 20 chronographs to the ALAT crews. Three years later, the Army had six groups of about 40 helicopters, attached to their respective divisions.
I skip the intermediate stages (I know you’re not patient and want to see Type 20 pictures as soon as possible…) to arrive in 1979 with the creation of 5 combat helicopter regiments. The creation of these regiments marked the beginning of a new era for the use of helicopters, which saw the development of their anti-tank mission. The 1979/80s also marked the end of the Airain Type 20 chronograph for ALAT pilots.
In 2003, the ALAT was detached from the Artillery and became a separate weapon on French soil.
Since 1994, ALAT has chosen Saint Clotilde as its patron saint. The story says it is to her prayers that Clovis could have been victorious at Tolbiac by “submerging the enemy under fire from the sky”, which is precisely the function of the French Army’s combat helicopters today (source: Les saints-patrons de l’armée de Terre.)
Military history can be approached in particular through the insignia of the various army corps and the patents of the specialities. In order to put the review of this watch in its military context as much as possible, I acquired a reference work published in 1991 by the army historical service. It helped me to write the short history above, as well as to find and buy the few insignia worn by ALAT personnel between 1960 and 1980, which accompany the text and photos in the last part of this article.
My AIRAIN Type 20
The ad, found on the largest hunting area on the web, stated that “the time function works perfectly. The stopwatch and flyback functions require servicing”. A few words with the seller just taught me that the flyback function didn’t work and that the watch stopped as soon as the chrono is triggered… But the price was so attractive… It was my chance to catch a watch usually far too expensive for my budget. I wasn’t going to stop for so little, was I?! The deal was done.
Opening the case, I noticed that:
- The hand of the minutes subdial was… stucked on the dial !
- The mobile for the minutes subdial was missing.
- The tachymetric hand stopped when the rocker intermediate wheel came into contact with the center wheel.
- The characteristic sliding gear of the Flyback was mounted… upside down (Thanks to the photos from the Net)
You bet it didn’t work, this chronograph!
It didn’t take long to find the missing mobile. First problem solved. My movement had recovered its integrity.
Despite the glue, the minutes sub-dial came off easily, but I noticed that the axis of the old mobile was stuck, broken, in the hands’ tube. I finally managed to get it out. Problem N°2 solved. Only partially solved in fact. The hands tube proved a posteriori to be out of order. Arrrrgh ! Fortunately, after a few misadventures and the help of a very talented amateur watchmaker (thank you POL !) I was able to give my watch a brand new and original sub-dial hand.
Before putting the hand back in place, I managed to remove the glue left on the dial with a pin sharpened on a stone to get the tip as fine as possible. By pushing gently on the edge, the glue “blistered” and came off in a plate. The dial being in brass, paint loss and tiny scratches were visible. That was inevitable. I carefully masked all this with indelible marker and a little idian ink. The result was more than satisfactory and held up very well over time!
The second restoration step was to resolve the abnormal stop of the tachymetric watch. With the help of an old but very good watchmaking technical book (Le Chronographe – Son fonctionnement, sa réparation – B. Humbert), I understood that the chrono’s blocking was undoubtedly due to a wrong setting of the eccentric screw that defines the stroke of the intermediate rocker. Bingo! I recover my chrono function. Problem N°3 solved!
The Valjoux 222
Basically, the Valjoux 222 is a modified Valjoux 22 by the addition of the Flyback function, also called “night system”, in the original French army ministry Type 21 specifications. This function needs 3 specific parts : a specifically flyback designed hammer (spare part ref 8220), a combined sliding gear (spare part ref 8135), and a combined sliding gear tenon (spare part ref 8137)… as far as I could guess from the “difficult to read” document I found on the web. Will come back later to these parts. For the moment, look at this beauty!
That’s all?! Hey, don’ be so impatient. Give me time to type my sentence with my big fingers on my little keyboard… No, that’s not all. The French ministry of defence added specifications about the protection of the main strategic part of the watch, in order to guaranty that it that it would continue to function even in the event of a violent impact. Here is a translation of the specifications 2.2.1 article : “the movement is equipped with an effective shockproof device and airspring anti-sticking device”.
Lets see what it looks like !
And this is how I discovered that the illustrious Breguet Type 20… is technically speaking not a Type 20 despite its flyback function: it does not have the antisticking diamond-shaped brass safety and was only late equipped with the anti-shock system. Proof in picture :
How does this work ?
Here is the movement configuration while the chronograph function is not running:
Under the pressure of the chronograph trigger, the column wheel rotates. The brake (not break! Sorry guys. It’s official. I need to improve my English…) nose slides higher on its column head. The clutch nose falls between two columns. The first one leads to free the central chronograph wheel. The second ones leads to engage the running clutch wheel with the central wheel, launching the tachymetric hand on the dial side.
What about little videos to watch how it looks like in real life? (Switch your device sound to “on” in order to hear the “explanation”).
You will probably be also interested in watching what happens “inside the box”:
You will find two more overviews videos of the chronograph on the Clock me Tender Youtube channel.
The unsolved mystery
As the Type 21 specifications have been written in 1956, how is it that a watch produced after 1960, with a movement that seems to meet the requirements of the Type 21 specifications, bears the Type 20 designation?
You’ve got five minutes to find an answer…
As you have now understood, with its flyback function to measure short times period, the Airain Type 20 is definitively the essential device to cook the perfect steak on its two faces…
The watch case is closed by a very simple screwed solid steel “tout acier” caseback.
You notice that this caseback doesn’t have any “FG – Fin de Garantie” inscription, as you will often find on French military caseback, and especially on Dodane Type 21 (See below). This inscription was stamped on the watch back by the military watchmakers at the end of the servicing in order to indicate the next servicing date.
Sometimes, collectors think that the lack of such inscriptions means that Airain Type 20 like mine have not been used in the army and are just “civilian” watches. I personally made this mistake in the beginning. It is later that I learned that the ALAT‘s chronographs never had an end-of-warranty inscription. One of the reasons given is that they were being serviced by civilian watchmakers, but I have no formal proof of this hypothesis.
Nevertheless this caseback presents another interesting detail:
The 3-star marking means that this chronograph has received one of the highest distinctions from CETEHOR (CEntre TEchnique de l’industrie HORlogère), created in 1945, in order to promote the quality of the French watchmaking. The CETEHOR had an official control department, equipped to subject the watches to series of very demanding tests concerning the quality of manufacture and the precision of the movements. A few companies have had the privilege to win the 3 stars distinction for their watch. Yema is one of it. Dodane is another. If interested, I invite you to read the very complete article by ChP on the French forum Montres pour tous, with a lot of historical documents.
I have found an interesting comparison of the bezels design for brands produced by the Dodane manufacture. From top to bottom: Chronofixe, Dodane, Airain.
In day light, the white color of both hands and index figures mark a perfect contrast with the mat dial. The Airain Type 20 fully respects the specification about the readability. As the Flyback function is also called, in the 1956 French Defence Ministry, “Night system”, I had to check the ability to read the watch in dark environment.
Wow. Saturday night fever ! I think it’s all right. You will have noticed that the tachymetric hand is also covered with luminous painting.
Strap tests and ALAT badges
As I mentioned in the introduction, I’ve bought a few badges to bring to this article the military context it deserves. A good opportunity to test different straps on my watch.
ALAT beret badge
The ALAT main coat of arms is made of a 5 branches star carried by two wings
Probably the first ALAT pilot’s badge. The two cannons clearly indicate the artillery membership. This badge has been approved on 1953, January 3rd. The badges book doesn’t mention how long this badge has been in use but I suppose it was still available in the 60’s, and maybe even in the 70’s. This is my favorite pilot’s badge.
This badge was approved on 1954, October 15th. The badges book is not very talkative about it. But among all the ALAT pilot badges, it is the most evocative of the helicopter, in my opinion.
Anti tank missile pilot – observer
This pilot badge has been approved on 1979, July 20. The Airain Type 20 will end its ALAT career a few months later.
Pilot observer, qualified instructor
This badge has been approved on 1984, December 18th. As the Airain Type 20 was not part of the ALAT pilot equipment since 1980, this picture is a little anachronistic. But I found the badge was worth a picture.
GALCA 1 then 1st RHC
The GALCA 1 (Groupe d’Aviation Légère du 1e Corps d’Armée) has been created on 1969, July 1st, on the old Phalsbourg US base. The Phalsbourg city’s coat of arms represents the unit’s location. The badge design is completed by the ALAT wings and the first army corp symbol (1 figure with 4 stars). The GALCA 1 became the 1st RHC (Régiment d’Hélicoptères de Combat) on 1977, July 31. Between 1969 and 1977, the GALCA 1 has been equipped successively with Alouette II and III. The badge has been approved on 1970, December 3rd.
The 3rd GALAT (Groupe d’Aviation Légère de l’Armée de Terre) has been created on 1963, February 1st. It has been mostly equipped with Piper and Cessna planes, completed by Bell 47G-2 and Alouette II helicopters. Its mains missions were reconnaissance mission, photo mission, and liaison. Based in Rennes (Britany) The 3rd GALAT has been dissolved on 1973, May 31.
The 4th GALAT has been created on 1964, January 1st. It was equipped with 6 Piper L-18C, 5 Cessna L-19E, 1 Broussard, ans 2 Alouette II.
The 5th GALAT is born on 1968, July 1st, next to the city of Lyon, whose arms he bears. He’s got quite the same missions as the 3rd GALAT. This unit has been equipped with Cessna L-19E, MH 1521 Broussard, Bell 47G-2, Alouette II and, from 1976, with Alouette III. The badge was approved on 1970, January 26. You could tell me the bund strap is not a French pilot strap. You know what? You’re right. But my Airain Type 20 feels comfortable on it 😉
Airain type 20 back on tarmac!
Just recently, while I was preparing this review, I was very surprised (and excited) by the announcement of a re-edition of the Airain Type 20 chrono by the Dutch Compagnie des Montres Lebois and CIE, the company that bought the Airain trademark a few years ago.
The 3D models presented on Airain website are more than promising, and the watchmaking quality should be on par with the flyback column-wheel “caliber AM1, developed and made by Manufacture La Joux-Perret S.A. in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland”.
If you are familiar with Valjoux movements, you will have noticed similarities with the Valjoux 7750. I asked Tom van Wijlick, Co-founder of Compagnie des Montres Lebois and CIE. He confirmed the ETA DNA of the La Joux-Perret movement. But he also pointed out the strong enhancement compared to the original Valjoux, especially with the column wheel (I find it really nice in this blue color) and the flyback function. This AIRAIN AM1 also offers more power reserve (up to 55 hours according to Airain watches website). No doubt that we have here a very reliable movement, easy to service in the future.
If you’ve got the money, I think the watch is worth it ! Thanks to Tom van Wijlick, Co-founder of Compagnie des Montres Lebois and CIE for his very spontaneous answers and authorization to reproduce the above pictures.
You will find bellow a few links to read more about Type 20 or ALAT. But first let’s have a thought for those who have died in service to ensure peace under the gaze of Clothilde, patron saint of ALAT.
To know more about ALAT
- ALAT Museum
- ALAT Memory official website
- UNAALAT | Union Nationale des Associations de l’ALAT
- A very good 2018 reportage with one of the ALAT 3rd RHC squadron, called the felines
To read more about Type 20 and Type 21 chronographs
- Take off with “C’est l’histoire d’un type” published on March 2016 on Chronographes.net.
- Follow with “Chronographes militaires français : Type 20 & 21“, 2009 article on Erick D. his Mi Piace blog.
- Then browse the following threads on FAM: Valjoux 222 FB ; Montres de pilote Type 20
- Land with The Type 20: French Military Chronographs, by Stephen Sugiyama.
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I hope to see you soon on Clock me tender 😉