Walking out of Newcastle Airport, I knew this was going to be a business trip with a difference when the ear-splitting takeoff overhead of an F-35 Lightning II fighter shook the skies. A Hawk 127 jet trainer quickly followed and, a few minutes later, an E-7A Wedgetail – which is essentially a Boeing 737 crowned by a massive radar array.
The three military planes had taken off from the same runway on which I arrived – a runway shared by the neighbouring RAAF Base Williamtown – and two of those were equipped with ejection seats made by Martin-Baker, the company I was here to see.
Since 1946, the British company has been producing ejection seats for (mainly) military aircraft. Its seats have saved 7,613 lives, among them 76 Australians.
As a watch writer, visiting the field offices of a military-industrial complex isn't my typical beat. Martin-Baker’s close relationship to fellow English brand, watchmaker Bremont, is the reason I'm inspecting parachute lines like I know what I'm looking at.
Martin-Baker first approached Bremont back in 2007 with the brief to make a watch that could handle the same extreme testing as its ejection seats. In 2009 the first Martin-Baker (MB I) watch was released, but you couldn’t just pop down to the store and buy one.
To be eligible to wear this modern, two-crowned, red-barrelled watch, you had to have used a Martin-Baker seat for its ultimate purpose. The only people offered the opportunity to own this watch have all been shot from the cockpit of a military aircraft and lived to tell the tale.
Limiting your customer base might not seem like sound business, but it is smart marketing. The money-can't-buy nature of the MB I, along with the boys-own origin story, garnered plenty of attention.
"British engineering is a proud thing,” reflects Andrew Eden, Managing Director of Martin-Baker Australia. "Marvellous things have been created in Britain by two men in a shed, and Bremont and Martin-Baker are no different."
Martin-Baker ejection seats, Eden explains, are engineered for the worst day of your life. Lending the Martin-Baker name to the Bremont brand means the MB family of timepieces are also in for some pretty rough days of rigorous testing.
"We call it shake and bake. We have to prove our seats could work on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier – a famously unstable environment. You've got saltwater, diesel, aviation fuel, steam, heat, cold. And that's before you get to the stresses of the ejection itself."
Leon Mervis, Managing Director of Bremont Australia and New Zealand, admits to early thoughts of this being just another marketing-led brand collab.
"I was a little bit sceptical at first... I've been in the watch industry for 30 years, and I was aware of how good the smoke and mirrors are,” he says.
“But I went to Martin-Baker and saw what they put the watches through – there’s a patent on the ball-bearings in the case because they need to withstand the force of an ejection and not go through the watch movement like shotgun pellets."
"It was details like this that pushed me over the edge. A few days after seeing Martin-Baker, I walked into the London boutique and bought my first Bremont."
These days the Martin-Baker watches are a significant part of Bremont's line-up. They're a wonderfully over-engineered and very modern take on the classic pilot-style watch. A glance at the face tells you it's high legibility and zero fuss.
They're also easily recognisable, thanks to the twin crowns on the case: one adjusts the time, the other alters the internal bezel, handy for tracking elapsed time or a second timezone.
In addition to the regular versions, a limited edition white dial GMT MB III celebrates the 10th year of the Martin-Baker partnership. It's a hard-to-find watch, but not as rare as the custom model Eden was wearing: one of a 10-piece run made just for Martin-Baker Australia employees. There's even a kangaroo on the dial.