Review: Bremont MBI
The Supermarine Spitfire and the North American Aviation P-51 Mustang are some of the most important aircraft to have ever existed, having dominated the skies during World War Two, helping to bring peace back to a world at war. But there’s another aircraft, one you’ve probably never heard of, that’s equally important in a very different way: the MB 3.
A fighter prototype with a 2,000 horsepower Napier Sabre engine and six 20mm cannon loaded with 200 rounds apiece, the MB 3 was to be the most heavily armed fighter of the war. As well as being fast, it was manoeuvrable and easy to fly thanks to an integrated torsion-box construction and pneumatically operated flaps—but it never saw active service.
On the 12th of September 1942, Captain Valentine Baker—a man who, having been shot in the neck at the Battle of Gallipoli, told the doctor who’d warned him about the dangers of removing the bullet to ‘Leave it alone then’—took off as usual for another round of testing, when the engine seized and the plane was forced to land in a field, clipping a tree. Captain Baker was instantly killed, leaving the plane’s designer and company co-founder, James Martin, mortified—so much so that he turned the company’s focus away from aircraft manufacture to aircraft ejection systems.
Two years later, the company, Martin-Baker, was approached by the Ministry of Aircraft Production to develop a method for pilots to safely escape their aircraft. Up until that point, ejection was simply a case of jettisoning the canopy and jumping out, hoping not to get hit by the tail on the way.
This was unexplored territory, and although the concept of firing a person out of a cockpit at high speed worked perfectly in theory, in practice, with a real, live human, it was a complete unknown. Just four days after the first dummy test of Martin’s new ejection concept, Irishman Bernard Lynch took the hot seat. A factoryworker, Lynch described the ordeal as considerably uncomfortable—an understatement considering that a demonstration partaken by an aviation journalist resulted in hospitalisation due to crushed vertebrae.
Martin adapted the seat to a more reasonable human tolerance and Lynch continued to test it. Lynch would go on to trial the seat over 30 times, including in live aircraft and even at air shows. The seat was rolled into production almost immediately, with the pilot Jo Lancaster being the first to experience the benefits in active duty in 1948.
Martin-Baker seats have since gone on to save over 7,500 lives, constantly adapting to the needs of modern aviators and their increasingly capable aircraft. With over 17,000 active seats in current service, it’s a statistic the company takes incredibly seriously, inducting the pilots whose lives have been saved by these devices into the rather exclusive Ejection Tie Club. Members, unified by the experience, are commemorated with a unique tie and—you’ve probably guessed—a Bremont watch.
The Bremont Martin-Baker watch collection is, of course, available to any civilian who wants to purchase one—most of it, that is. The MBII, available with an orange, black or green case barrel, is a shade under £4,000, with the GMT MBIII version—unrelated to the aircraft that killed Captain Baker—a shade over.
This edition, with the red barrel, this is the MBI—and it’s only available to members of the Ejection Tie Club. The engraving on the back, personal to the member, is an ejectee number unique to each owner, a crumb of a clue to the story that instigated the presentation of the watch in the first place.
But why a Bremont? you must be thinking. Bremont is a relatively young company, founded in 2002 by a pair of British aviation enthusiasts with the rather appropriate surname of ‘English’. But how do you establish a brand with no heritage or history in an industry that relies so heavily on those things? You need a hook. A theme. Something that makes the brand stand out, without crossing the line into gimmick.
For Bremont, the obvious choice was aviation, but the trick was making a 200-year-old technology relevant in a modern industry. It turns out that military pilots are a discerning bunch and like a good wristwatch, so that’s where Bremont set its sights—and who better to test the durability of such a watch than the master of aircraft safety themselves: Martin-Baker.
The development of the Bremont Martin-Baker is no fairy-tale; early designs, when subjected to, for example, a vibration test that simulates 20 years of active use in the cockpit, or a helicopter crash test, rendered the watches KIA. Detached rotor bearings, cracked crystals—general self-disassembly. These tests are brutal, the vibration tests especially, rendering the brand new boots and clothes of the test dummy antiques.
Most movements feature shock protection for the balance, but the solution here was to shock mount the entire movement. A rubber ring, pliable enough to absorb an impact, but firm enough to keep everything aligned during day-to-day use, is housed within the anodised barrel and flanked by an outer case hardened to 2,000 Vickers—that’s around a nine on the Mohs scale, one down from diamond. A Faraday cage protects the movement from the magnetic and electro-static forces present in the cockpit.
When the modified watch was retested, it performed admirably, and finally entered production with Martin-Baker’s blessing—with the MBI exclusively reserved for ejectees. You’d think that would be the end of the story, but the MB series has struck a chord with the flying elite. An F/A-18E Super Hornet pilot, for example, ejected following a refuelling malfunction that engulfed his plane—and the deck of the aircraft carrier it was parked on—in flames, narrowly missing the blades of the operational helicopter nearby. He contacted Bremont afterwards, not to get an MBI, but to have the barrel of his own MBII switched out for a red one.
It might seem odd to celebrate the near-miss of such a life-threatening situation, but there’s something of a bond between those who’ve used a Martin-Baker seat to protect them that helps to give meaning to the tragic death of Captain Valentine Baker. To convey that sense through an object like a watch may seem frivolous, but it serves as a potent reminder of the day a user of a Martin-Baker seat was given another chance.
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