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In the early 1900s, intrepid aviators raced to prove their mastery of their flying machines. Newspapers sponsored air races, from city to city and then around the world. But as aviation militarized and World Wars broke out, these races stopped.
Then, in 1953, the airport in Christchurch, New Zealand, announced their intention to go “international.”
What followed was a joyful race in which both military and civilian aircraft would participate—the Last Great Air Race.
It was October 1953 and the height of the Cold War. In the Korean peninsula a real war raged, with fierce fighting on either side. Though the UK—and New Zealand, as part of the Commonwealth—fought against the North Koreans, they still took time to race each other halfway around the world.
The race was to start in London and end at the airport in Christchurch. Two categories of airplanes participated: military aircraft, competing against each other for speed, and civilian airliners as handicaps. Active military personnel, from the 540 Squadron of the RAF and the No 1 Long Range Flight of the Australian Air Force, raced against each other in Canberra jet bombers.
On the civilian side, the pilots flew passenger jetliners… with actual passengers.
Captain Kooper flew a Douglas DC-6B operated by KLM Airlines. Although the president of KLM, Albert Plesman, initially didn’t want women on board, he relented after being lambasted in the press. As it happened, most of the passengers on that Douglas DC-6B were young Dutch women fleeing the war-torn Netherlands in search of husbands in New Zealand.
They embarked, in high spirits and full of joie de vivre. None of them had flown before, and the race took them to places many of them had only dreamt of, or read about in books. Rome, the Eternal City; Baghdad, Karachi, Rangoon; Jakarta; and then from Darwin and Brisbane in Australia on to Christchurch.
At Rangoon, the passengers and crew of the KLM jetliner learned that the plane from New Zealand had to retire, leaving only one other competitor—British European Airways.
The DC-6B touched down at the newly-rechristened airport, greeted by a Maori band. The flight had taken 44 hours, 29 minutes, and 31 seconds. Though the British plane had landed before them, the KLM liner was declared the winner on handicap.
Twenty hours before, Flight Lieutenant Monty Burton had landed in his Canberra PR3. All told, he took 23 hours and 51 minutes. They had flown 11,796 miles—the first time man had flown halfway around the world in less than 24 hours.
The same year, the British Ministry of Defense laid out standard 6B/542 for watches meant for military personnel like Lieutenant Burton.
Those built by Omega have an interesting bit of history that sets them apart from the other 6Bs: these watches were originally lumed with radium, but were swapped for tritium replacements, and printed a thicker white arrow to indicate the safer luminescent material—the source of the "Fat Arrow" nickname.
With its 36mm case, this 6B is a great size for modern wrists, and the RAF origins makes the watch a fantastic piece of military history. These watches have become wildly popular over the past few years and they’re harder to come by than ever. Tough and durable, they’re capable of performing in adverse conditions—whether in combat or taking a jaunt around the world.
Steel case is approximately 37mm (excluding crown). Omega 6B/542 Reference 2777-1 SC. Omega Calibre .283 Manually-Wound Movement. Circa 1960s.
Overall Condition: Steel case is in great condition overall with moderate signs of wear. Black dial is in very good condition with fine patina to the luminescent elements of the hands. Hour plots and track have been repainted. Unsigned crown. Case back with military engravings is in good condition considering age and wear.
Includes one 18mm brown nylon strap.