I can’t believe it took me this long to write about the Victorinox Swiss Army Airboss Mach 3. I consider these standout chronos to be cornerstone pieces for any collector of Swiss Army watches. The Airboss Mach 3s were quartz-driven watches with several unique time-keeping tricks including a central-minutes chronograph and a separate internal count-down bezel. Today we will look back at the first and second-generation Mach 3 variations made in the early and mid-2000s.
The Airboss Series History
The Victorinox Swiss Army Airboss Mach 3 was one of the first Swiss Army watches that captured my attention all those years ago as a younger collector. The first-generation Airboss Mach 3 (above left) was released in 2003 and was the third model in the Airboss series known as “machs” (aka Mach 1, 2, 3, etc.). They featured clear, military-inspired dials, intact numerals, and yellow lume accents. This bright color is linked to the yellow shirts that actual navy air bosses wear on aircraft carriers. These important commanders control the flight deck activities. Most carrier aircrews wear color-coded uniforms which are best illustrated by rewatching the first 5 minutes of Tom Cruise’s classic Top Gun movie. The second-generation Airboss Mach 3 (above right) was released about eight years later in 2011 and marked a reset in Swiss Army’s design style that persisted for several years.
The continuing story of the Airboss family of watches is interesting. Over the years, each new release seemed to grow more ambitious and try new complications from central-minutes chronos, to world timer GMTs to fuel gauge calculators. Airbosses are some of the most interesting watches that Victorinox offers and well worth collecting. You can learn more about the Airboss series here and how they got their name: WATCH DNA: The First Airboss Watch by Victorinox Swiss Army.
A Closer Look at the Airboss Mach 3
Besides the unique appearance of the left-hand-drive Mach 3s with multiple crowns and pushers, the real draw of acquiring these models is the chance to own a modern, hassle-free central-minutes chronograph. Fans of this rarer complication might want to take a closer look at the Victorinox Swiss Army Airboss Mach 3 as a fantastic option, especially if they are on a budget.
The central-minutes chronograph complication is the highlight of the Airboss Mach 3 watches. Victorinox called these watches 60/60 chronos. This means that they are capable of recording 60 seconds per minute and 60 minutes per hour on the same central axis as the regular minute and hour hands. The chronograph also records 1/10th seconds on the left sub-dial and up to 12 hours on the right totalizer.
A full-dial, central-minutes 60-minute chronograph is generally easier to read than a tiny 30-minute sub-dial totalizer, especially for those with older eyes. However, there is a catch when it comes to the Swiss Army Airboss Mach 3. Because the countdown timer on the bezel lists numbers in reverse order, reading the elapsed time can be slightly confusing. For instance, if the central-minutes chrono hand points to “55”, then only 5 minutes have elapsed. If it points to “50” then only 10 minutes have elapsed and so on. The user may have to do some quick mental math, with the formula 60-x (the number on the bezel)=elapsed time. I eventually got used to this quirk caused by combining a countdown bezel with a count-up chronograph.
Generation 1 of the Airboss Mach 3 – V.24042 and V.24043
The first-generation Airboss Mach 3 looked similar to the Airboss Mach 1 and Mach 2 that came before it. The mission for these earlier Airbosses was to use a clean, classic design that had excellent legibility. The dial numerals are stylized in what I like to call “naval fonts” like the ones you might see on the tower of an aircraft carrier. These were likely hand-drawn, but the numbers on the bezel look to be standard fonts and not overly stylized. The subdial fonts appear to be a different, rounder typeface. Furthermore, this version has the famous red Swiss Army shield logo and SWISS ARMY text. This is how the logo was before Victorinox consolidated the companies.
The Roman sword hands of this version evoke a classic pilot’s watch, but the lemon yellow lume adds a zesty twist to the formula. The chronograph gets large stick hands on the central axis and fencepost hands on the snailed subdials.
Yellow accents can make a playful dial, but the color is used to enhance legibility. For instance, it appears on thicker hatch marks at each 5-minute interval. The rest of the hatch marks on the inner bezel are thinner sticks and the dial is marked with different sized circles. Notice the solid-filled triangle on the bezel for greater emphasis.
The chrono hands on the first-generation Airboss Mach 3 are similar in shape and size. It can be difficult to notice that there are two hands stacked on one another, especially when the chrono is not running. Color is used to differentiate the central chronograph hands: the minute’s hand is yellow and the second’s hand is white.
Generation 2 of the Airboss Mach 3 – V.241380
While the second-generation Airboss Mach 3 shares the same name, it has more attitude than the first Mach 3. Attention to detail on the later watch is impressive. There is a lot going on with all the tick marks, various hand shapes, snailed subdials, truncated numerals, and lume plops, but somehow it still works as a complete package. This version demands more attention than the first model.
The updated dial has a sense of excitement caused by a few dramatically modified elements from the first-generation model. There is not one simple, straight hatch mark on the dial and bezel. Instead, every single hatch mark is shaped like a wedge that implies motion towards the center of the dial. The 12-hour subdial gets even pointier fang-like hatch marks that remind me of the teeth on the famous Seiko Monster watch.
The dial fonts were redesigned to look more harmonious than the earlier model. The dial, bezel, and subdial fonts now match with a wide semi-squared font. I believe these numbers to be hand-drawn because they are not 100% the same. Check out the “5” in 25 and 15 on the bezel to see the difference (the 5 in 15 had an extra serif). All the dial numerals were oversized compared to the previous version. 3, 6, and 9 are even larger than the rest of the numerals. In fact, some numerals are so big that they get covered or partially obscured by subdials. By 2011, “Victorinox” had been added to the Swiss Army logo, and luckily, it is tastefully sized. To learn more about the history of Victorinox Swiss Army and why the logo changed, read The Unofficial History of Victorinox Swiss Army.
The central chronograph hands on this version are labeled as MIN and SEC in case you get confused. Obvious color, thickness, and shape differences make it very easy to read the greenish-yellow “elapsed minutes” hand quickly. The sub-dial hands become wicked-looking daggers or missiles?. Whatever that shape is called, it sure is cool.
The pure yellow accents on the previous model were updated to a greenish-yellow hue, some of which are actually Superluminova. The shield logo is lume-filled, as are many other parts on the dial including the open triangle on the timing bezel. This dial stays in the game at night making this version the more versatile choice.
A Brief Overview of Central-Minutes Chronograph Movements
Historically speaking, classic central-minutes chronographs from the 1970s to 1990s were often powered by variants of the Lemania 5100 including legendary military pilot watches made by Sinn, Heuer, Omega, Tutima, and probably a few I have forgotten. These semi-vintage watches are coveted by collectors today, but ownership is not without some anxiety. Acquiring parts for servicing can be problematic since the Lemania 5100 movements are no longer made.
Only a few modern manufacturers offer central-minutes chronographs these days, and you will be paying a premium to buy an automatic version. Sinn makes the caliber SZ-01 which is based on a highly modified Valjoux 7750 and Damasko makes the in-house caliber C51-2. Neither movement acts exactly like a Lemania 5100 and omits the day, date, and a.m./p.m. complications. However, they are the closest movements offered by modern manufacturers. Models such as the Sinn 140ST, the Damasko DC80, DC82 & DC86, and the microbrand A-13A Pilot watch are models to consider if you want to buy current central-minutes chronos. Owning a Victorinox Swiss Army Airboss Mach 3 Chrono is a relatively easier way to acquire a central-minutes chronograph watch, and you get the added count-down bezel as well.
Swiss Quartz Engine Inside
The caliber behind the Airboss Mach 3’s central-minutes chronograph magic is the ETA 251.262. This Swiss quartz movement has 27 jewels and also has 5 micromotors (green and red coils) to move all the hands independently. Even diehard mechanical watch lovers might appreciate the capabilities of this movement. Mechanical movements with similar functions can be purchased in watches costing thousands of dollars more, making the Airboss Mach 3 a relative bargain.
It may be surprising to learn that Airboss Mach 3s don’t have a running seconds hand. Without the chrono activated, the static dial might seem sleepy. However, you can always start the chronograph to see movement on the dial. Believe me, you will enjoy playing with the timer. Use the lower pusher to start and stop the chrono.
Resetting the Chrono
Use the top pusher to reset the chrono. Since the watch is quartz-powered, the hands will smoothly sweep forward clockwise to the zero starting positions. This is different than mechanical chronograph movements that instantly snap all hands back counterclockwise into position using a hammer mechanism inside. If the Airboss Mach 3 hands do not reset to zero, and instead go to the wrong spot, this issue can usually be fixed.
This is accomplished by putting the watch into a special micro-adjust mode, which is activated by pulling out the crown in different positions and hitting the different pushers to move each chronograph hand individually. For more information on how to operate the Airboss Mach 3, please check out pages 27-33 of the Airboss Mach 3 User’s Manual.
Left-Hand Drive Layout
It’s easy to see that Airboss Mach 3s are unlike any other watches from Swiss Army. The chronograph is a left-hand-drive (a.k.a. destro) design. This means that the crown and pusher positions are opposite of what you normally see. Instead of the controls appearing on the right, they are on the left side. The resulting layout gives the Mach 3 its unique appearance.
The large knob at 3:00 is not the main crown as you might think. Instead, it controls the internal bi-directional timing bezel. The “actual” main crown used to set the watch is flush-mounted on the left-hand side between the pushers. You can barely see it when it’s on the wrist because the outer bezel of the watch overhangs the case. You can more easily see how the main crown is recessed from the back. It is almost flush to the case, but a cutout allows you to pull the crown with the edge of your fingernail.
Jumping Hour Date Set Function
The Airboss Mach 3 does not have a standard quick date setting function that we are used to seeing on modern timepieces. On most watches, one pulls the crown out to the first position and rotates it to advance the date. To set the date on an Airboss Mach 3, you pull the crown out one position and rotate the jumping hour hand, one hour at a time. It will take 24 “hour-jumps” to change the date when starting from 12:00 a.m. midnight. It may not be as fast as a quick set date mechanism, but it is certainly workable. Plus, it has an added benefit.
Jumping hour hands are great for travelers who need to set their watches to a new time zone. It is easy to move the hour setting forward or backward while keeping the minute hand engaged (not hacked) and therefore tracking time. Since only the hour hand is moved, there is better time accuracy when comparing your Mach 3 to your original time source.
Inner “Count Down” Timing Bezel
The inner bezel is bi-directional and should rotate smoothly. It does not click like some high-end watches from IWC. The timing function is completely opposite from the way that a dive watch bezel counts up from zero. Instead, this count-down bezel is used by setting the desired time interval first. For example, to count down 5 minutes, align the 5-minute mark on the bezel to the minute’s hand. When the hand reaches the triangle on the bezel, 5 minutes has elapsed.
The advantage of having both a chronograph and an inner timing bezel is that the user can time 2 separate events in different ways. One can be tracked in count-down mode on the bezel (up to 1 hour) and the other can be tracked in a normal count-up mode on the central-minutes chrono (for up to 12 hours).
10:00 Date Window
The date window of the Airboss Mach 3 is positioned at the 10:00 spot. Each version has outlines around this window so Swiss Army was not really trying to hide the position. In fact, I think they were almost saying “we put the date window in this unique place on purpose!” There is a good reason for the location of the date window, and it has to do with the watch being a “lefty”. To get the crown and pushers on the left side, Swiss Army rotated the movement 180 degrees. Think of this as a watch with a date window at 4:30 but flipped upside down. I cannot think of any other watch with this date window location. Maybe the date disk is customized so that the date reads upright in its current location.
Case Size Alone Does Not Describe a Watch
I’ve owned several Victorinox Swiss Army Airboss Mach 3s and I always thought they were essentially the same watch but with different dials designs. I assumed that just because their cases were both 43mm, they were identical. As I found out upon closer inspection, this is not completely true. There are subtle differences between the first and second-generation Airboss Mach 3s. You can see the differences by eye, but taking measurements paints a clearer picture. I measured these the best that I could do using digital calipers. The differences might be as small as a tenth of a millimeter and it was difficult to get accurate readings. As such, my measurements should be used for general size comparisons only.
* = Larger Parameters
- Case Size:
- Lug-to-lug distance:
- Crystal size:
- Dial between rotating bezel:
- Bezel Width:
Generation 1Airboss Mach 3
- 43 mm
- 52 mm
- 35.5 mm
- 11.78 mm
- 27.72 mm
- 3.69 mm
Generation 2Airboss Mach 3
- 43 mm
- 52 mm
- 37.27 mm*
- 12.2 mm*
- 30.8 mm*
- 3.03 mm*
So, what can be gleaned from these measurements? The side-by-side measurements of the different Airboss Mach 3s imply that the second-generation Airboss Mach 3 has a larger dial stuffed into the same size case as the first-generation watch. The designers did this by making a narrower outer bezel, a narrower inner rotating bezel, and a wider dial. The second-generation watch is slightly taller on the wrist too. The tweaked measurements on the second-generation Airboss Mach 3 are meant to create a more dynamic, and larger-looking watch, without necessarily enlarging the case. The desire to wear larger watches back in the 2000s was on trend so this is understandable to make a watch appear larger.
Which Airboss Mach 3 Version is Better?
Both Airboss Mach 3 generations are attractive, but for different reasons. I have vacillated between the two when it comes to picking a favorite. In some ways, the older version is easier to read and yellow lume on a watch is somewhat uncommon. Then I see the second-generation Mach 3 and fall in love with how technical the dial looks. In the end, I realized that both of these watches could exist in the same collection without too much overlap. These watches tell a story of stylistic change within the Victorinox company that happened over several years. The two generations look like they come from different eras or from the hands of different designers. Design concepts for brands can morph over time, and today’s Swiss Army watches have taken a new direction as well.
Bracelets and Straps
The appearance of a watch is greatly influenced by the bracelet or watchband supplied with the watch. Victorinox does a great job of making high-quality stainless steel bracelets, and thin, supple leather straps. Their watchband offerings are usually conservative in color, but you can always DIY this with a strap swap.
Technically, only the V.24043 came with a 5-link stainless steel bracelet with a butterfly deployant clasp. But every model can fit the bracelet (model #000964) if you want that. These can be harder to find, but some still exist. Swiss Army drilled two lug holes – one to accept this bracelet and another to fit a leather strap or NATO of choice. That is a nice touch that reduces unnecessary visual space between the lugs when the bracelet is not installed.
Airboss Mach 3s are strap monsters. Like most pilot-inspired watches with black dials, the owner can quickly personalize the watch to his own sense of style with a quick strap swap. I know I tried several options from leather to nylon with various results. With a 100 meters water resistance rating, you could use a rubber strap, but it’s not really that kind of watch to go splashing about.
The Future of My Airboss Mach 3 Collection
As one grows as a watch collector, I know that tastes generally become fancier. This can happen when you are hanging out with other watch nerds with next-level collections. Seeing their watches makes one wonder “could I own something better?” In my situation, I have decided to pursue German titanium pilot chronographs with the Lemania 5100 movement inside. I find myself wearing those more these days, so eventually, my Swiss Army Mach 3s will move to new homes. I will miss them and still suggest them to anyone who wants the exclusivity of owning a central-minute chronograph but wants the reliability, convenience, and affordability of a quartz watch.
Victorinox Swiss Army Airboss Mach 3s are getting harder to find these days, but they are still out there on eBay and occasionally on watch forums. When buying one, make sure that all the hands work and reset correctly. If one of the hands does not move or manually reset, don’t buy it. This means the micromotor probably failed. The only way to affordably fix this issue is to replace the movement. Victorinox will likely not do that. If you can source the movement and have a watchmaker replace it, that is an option, though not really cheap… the movement has been discontinued, but old stock movements might be found or replacement calibers like the ETA 251.264 might be compatible. This is not 100% known, especially if the Airboss Mach 3 uses a special date wheel.
I have enjoyed my time with both of my Airboss Mach 3s and would recommend them to anyone who likes the size, the looks, and the nerdy fun of pushing buttons and turning bezels to time practically any event up to 12 hours. There are many inner bezel watches, but very few that look like the Airboss Mach 3s. That alone sets these apart.