Only Pilots Who’ve Cheated Death Could Buy This Watch, Until Now

Some folks get a fancy watch for serving 25 years in the same company. Others get one for being fired out of a plane via a Martin-Baker ejection seat.By Justin Mastine-Frost
From Bloomberg

Jim Bernthal is one of the latter. And now, he’s put his Bremont Martin-Baker Special Edition MB1 up for sale.

Among the British watchmaker’s many military commissions and partnerships, which include the U-2 (designed for, and tested by, pilots flying the high-altitude Lockheed U-2 surveillance aircraft) the first model of its Martin-Baker “MB” series is offered for sale only to pilots who have survived the traumatizing experience of ejecting from a jet. For collectors of aviation watches, this sale, via Crown & Caliber, represents a rare opportunity to join one of the most exclusive watch ownership clubs out there—without first having to stare death in the face.

Bernthal, then a U.S. Marine Corps flight instructor, bought his MB1 (also known as the MBI) after a fateful day in March 2008 at Mississippi’s Naval Air Station Meridian. Weather conditions were so adverse that he had expected the T-45 Goshawk, a single-engine tandem-seat fighter he anticipated flying in as supervisor in a training mission, to be grounded. Given the talent of his trainee and the relative straightforwardness of the expected maneuver—a coordinated, in-flight meeting of two jets separated by a mere 1,000 feet—all proceeded as planned, Bernthal says. It wasn’t until landing time that things started getting hairy.

“At first, I thought my student was just fighting some crosswind, so I wasn’t all that worried,” Bernthal says. Given the layer of fog that had been draping the landing runway on takeoff, a “legal divert” (basically, a back-up plan) had been set up, just in case. Then things got worse.

Bernthal was forced to grab the controls and bring the T-45 back airborne as it began skating off the runway. Circling around, it became clear the jet’s electronics were failing to acknowledge the plane’s proximity to the ground (among other issues). As they began to touch down again, they encountered a further lack of braking and control. Bernthal had just one option: Reach for the bright yellow-and-black handle of the Martin-Baker ejection seat before the jet would be torn apart in the forest that lay ahead ahead.

While his student landed without injury, Bernthal did not. The thrust from an ejection seat imposes roughly 14 to 16 Gs of gravitational force on the human spine; the vertical compression causes one in three ejection survivors to suffer a broken back.