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Time on his hands, pilot takes watchmaking turn

Pandemic prompted fresh approach

Ralph Freshour has plenty he could complain about. More than a year after he joined the ranks of thousands of pilots suddenly unemployed when travel demand crashed in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, Freshour is still waiting for a call back to his old job as an instructor at FlightSafety International in Long Beach, California.

Laid off from his job training business jet pilots at FlightSafety International, Ralph Freshour decided to make his watch collecting hobby profitable. Photo courtesy of Ralph Freshour.

This was only the most recent stop in a long aviation career that earned him the distinction of being among very few professional crew instructors to have worked for Boeing Co., Lockheed Martin Corp., and McDonnell Douglas. Freshour said that he might not need to wait on FlightSafety.

The longtime pilot is turning himself into a watchmaker by trade, his workshop contained, for the most part, in a rolltop desk and the oven in his kitchen, and he is not complaining:

“As it is turning out, I continue to receive a lot of orders from [LinkedIn] pilots,” Freshour wrote. “And to my surprise, flight department orders for 10 to 20 watches each also continue to come in. So I'm keeping really busy. If I don't hear from FSI, it looks like this will turn into my full time job!”

Freshour came into the watch world as a hobbyist, a collector with an appreciation of the Rolex GMT, launched in 1955 and the product of a partnership between the famous watchmaker and Pan American World Airways. Pan Am CEO Juan Trippe was hard at work making air travel glamorous, with passengers and crew alike dressed to the nines, with fine dining on board, and other trappings of luxury including the ultimate luxury: time. More time where you want to be, less time spent getting there.

Crossing multiple time zones in a day was still new to the human experience, and Trippe wanted a stylish yet practical accessory for his flight crews, a watch that kept time in two zones at once. Thus was the Rolex GMT-Master delivered.

The modern version is still sold by Rolex, and costs $12,576 to $40,000 or more, according to online listings. Freshour has zero interest in crossing the world-famous watchmaker that employs an army of lawyers to defend its intellectual property. The longtime collector is well aware of the sprawling black market of counterfeit Rolex watches, and the pains Rolex takes to shut down the fakes and knock out the knockoffs. You will not find a scintilla of Rolex branding (much less maker’s marks) on the watches he creates for fellow pilots. “I don’t want any copyright issues coming my way from Rolex.”

“I buy sterile dials,” Freshour explained. He started with plain white, for technical reasons. Dark inks don’t show on a black surface, and laser printers that are able to use white toner are pricey, costing $2,500 to $7,000 or more, Freshour said. “That’s the method I’d like to go to support black dials.”

It did not take long for demand to justify the expense: He now offers black dials as an option, as well as white. The dials, the quartz movement, the bands, and the hands that he sources from various factories collectively bear a striking resemblance to a Rolex GMT, minus any sign of world-famous branding; Freshour calls his online shop GMT Pilots, and prices his watches starting at $320 for a basic watch with a white dial; the same watch with custom graphics is priced at $360; $380 gets you the basic watch with a black dial, and the top of Freshour’s line, a black-dial watch with custom graphics, will set you back $420.

A finished watch with a blue bezel. GMT Pilot (Ralph Freshour's online store) offers customers options to choose from for several components, including the bezel (blue in this case), watch face, and watch band. Photo courtesy of Ralph Freshour.

Unlike the original Rolex GMT, which has a mechanical spring-driven movement that Pan Am pilots had to remember to wind, Freshour has opted for the Ronda 512.24H quartz movement, the version with exclusively Swiss-made parts. It’s a time-tested watch movement (the part that makes a watch a watch, not just an ornament), and is reliable and easy to service with common tools and parts if ever needed. Each battery should last about three years.

“If I sell one of my watches to a pilot, I want to make sure that it’s going to work for a really long time,” Freshour said.

He has carefully chosen his suppliers, eschewing a different version of the Ronda movement that contains some non-Swiss parts. “Hands are custom made to my specifications,” Freshour said. “I have two factories that make those for me.”

While it would certainly have been possible to purchase fully assembled watches with blank faces that he could customize with a laser printer, an unwillingness to compromise led him to this piecemeal approach.

“I call that going down the hard road,” Freshour said.

Ralph Freshour assembles the watches he sells on this rolltop desk, which can be closed to separate work from the rest of his day, and his cats from the small parts and pieces. Photo courtesy of Ralph Freshour.

Custom graphics are laser printed from computer files (customers are invited to submit their own; some limitations apply) onto a thin film that Freshour carefully applies to the watch dial, then bakes in the oven to fix the graphics permanently in place before peeling off the plastic film. This is not quite the same method that Rolex used in the 1950s—Freshour said mass-produced watch faces are usually produced with a method called pad printing, in which a the image is engraved on an image plate (known as a cliché) that functions the same way as an offset printing press plate used to print books and newspapers and airplane brochures. The “pad” is the rounded silicone business end of a press that squeezes the cliché onto the blank watch dial and can stamp out identical copies of this most visible part at speed. It’s expensive to customize a watch face.

The same can be said for hand painting the dial: too time-consuming to be practical, particularly when you have a backlog building and your factory is a rolltop desk that can be closed to prevent your cats from batting the inventory under the couch.

Freshour wrote recently that business has been so good, with so many orders for batches of identical watches, that he found a vendor with experience making watch dials to provide pad printing services when needed for those large batch orders. It will save Freshour a lot of time.

“I decided it was better to use a pad printing service vs buying the equipment myself as I just made a sizable investment in being able to print white text on black dials,” Freshour wrote.

‘The part that no one believes’

Freshour got into the watchmaking business in much the same way he got into his aviation career: somewhat by accident.

“You probably won’t believe it,” Freshour said before launching into his aviation story. He served in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War as a mechanic working on F–4 Phantom jets. He completed a 12-month tour at Ubon Air Base in Thailand and started taking flight lessons (financed in no small part by the GI Bill) upon his return to California. He was looking for work, and the unemployment office invited him to attend a one-month metalworking class at Lockheed’s Palmdale, California, factory, where workers were needed to build the L–1011 TriStar. He figured he’d land another job in a month, Freshour said, though it wouldn’t hurt to take the class, even though he was more interested in flying airplanes than he was in building them. The class ended and he still didn’t have another offer. “Sure enough, Lockheed hired all of us,” Freshour said.

“Here’s the part that no one believes,” he continued: He was shooting rivets on the line one day when it occurred to him that he might qualify to be a flight engineer on the airplane he was building. It was so new that few working flight engineers would have much experience with the L–1011. “Nobody’s got 1,000 hours,” he recalled thinking. Freshour “picked up the phone on the floor” and dialed the chief flight engineer to inquire about qualifications and was invited to come and chat. That conversation led to an offer: Pass the flight engineer written exam, and he’d have a new job on the flight deck. “True to his word, he hired me…. That’s how I got started.”

It didn’t last, Freshour said. He was 25 years old when the first oil crisis of the 1970s hit, and Freshour, Lockheed’s youngest flight engineer, got his first layoff notice. “I didn’t have hardly any seniority.”

He bounced back quickly, landing a job at Delta Air Lines three months later, where he worked as a ground school instructor, the job that “got me into the professional flight training game.”

After five years at Delta, he was off to McDonnell Douglas in the late 1980s, followed by a stint at Boeing Co. to round out his trifecta of major U.S. airline producers. “Then Boeing closed their training center.”

Freshour found a new aviation job at FlightSafety International about four years ago, where he was hired to serve as second in command of simulator training flights in business jets, his first foray into professional general aviation after years on the air transport side.

Photo courtesy of Ralph Freshour.

All of this begs a question that professional pilots are wrestling with: What does one do when the price of oil spikes, or the economy tanks, or a pandemic comes along and tanks everything, and you’re back on the outside of aviation, looking in? What do you do?

“I would tell those pilots, hang in there,” Freshour said. “You’re going to get recalled. The industry’s going to recover from this. I don’t know exactly when, but I know it will recover.”

With a history of boom and bust cycles, layoffs, mergers, deregulation, and whatever the next unpredictable thing might be, aviation has always been this way, he said. “It’s always been sort of a roller coaster type of ride.”

Keep flying, however you can, Freshour advises. “In your time off, try to see what flying jobs you can get in the general aviation world… try to keep your mind as fresh as you can with aviation knowledge.”

To that end, Freshour recently completed a private pilot ground school at a local college, though he holds a commercial pilot certificate with instrument and multiengine ratings, as well as flight engineer and ground instructor certificates. Freshour said he is current, and didn’t need to take that course, but it was a way to “help keep my mind occupied.”

He flies a Cessna 172 out of Long Beach, and a Pipistrel out of Fullerton from time to time. The next opportunity might come from yet another new and unexpected direction.

“I think for most pilots … a vast majority… aviation is in their blood,” Freshour said.

Back in July, Freshour was expecting a call any day from FlightSafety International. He stays in touch with his colleagues there, and word was they’d be looking for a Gulfstream instructor to fly SIC in the sim. “I’m expecting to go back pretty soon,” he said.

In August, he is still hoping for that call, but is also prepared to make a living making watches, which seems to be working out. It never hurts to have an extra skill or two on the side, and be ready to pounce, like a cat on a freshly baked watch dial, when opportunity presents itself.

Watch assembly requires some special tools, like the one at left used to align the date magnifier. On the right, a tool used to install the hands. Photos courtesy of Ralph Freshour.

Jim Moore
Jim Moore
Managing Editor-Digital Media
Digital Media Managing Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot, as well as a certificated remote pilot, who enjoys competition aerobatics and flying drones.
Topics: People, COVID19, Career

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