Skip to main content

The Rolex Oyster Perpetual Air King, The Original Aviator

The Rolex Oyster Perpetual Air-King has a long aviation pedigree and is one of the longest-running product lines in Rolex history.

The first Air-King appeared in 1945 and arrived as a conscious effort to merge predecessors featuring names like Air Lion, Air Tiger, and Air Giant. These monikers had been in use on various Bubbleback Rolex Oyster Perpetuals since the early 1930s.

They became popular among WWII pilots of the British Royal Air Force since they proved more reliable, accurate and readable than the RAF-issued timepieces.

Rolex reused references across model lines. Because of this, it is correct for a ref. 5500 to appear in both product lines with either Air-King or Explorer dials.

These dual-reference models are challenging to validate with the conversion from one to the other being a matter of a simple dial swap. For example, a prized 3-6-9 Explorer dial fitted to a less desirable Air King 5443, can net an unscrupulous dealer a tidy profit.

There’s a lot to learn and love about the Air-King. Broadly speaking (and there are exceptions) the 4000 series reference numbers are WWII era watches from the 1940s. The 6500 series appear in the early 1950s. The 5000 series references appear in the mid-1950s and run until the late 1970s. The line was dormant during the 1980s before reappearing again in the early 1990s as a ve-digit reference (14000 series).

The first Air-King references used manual wind Aegler Hunter movements like cal. A720 and A296. These included ref. 4925 and 4365 (also adual-reference) and 4499.

In the 1950s Rolex released Air-Kings with what are considered Rolex in-house movements like the cal. 1030, 3000, 1520, 1530, 3130 and the modern cal. 3131.

The first auto-winding, Oyster Perpetual Air-King was ref. 6552 with cal. 1030 which arrived in 1953.

The iconic Air-King ref. 5500 appeared in 1957 with cal.1530 and 1520 and lasted 37 years. It is one of the longest-running references in the Rolex lineup.

The ref. 5500 is a robust and reliable watch that can be serviced by any competent, independent watchmaker. With supply still plentiful, prices are reasonable making this a popular choice for a first vintage Rolex.

Confusingly the ref. 5500 was introduced in 1957 then again with the same reference number in 1970 but with an upgraded chronometer movement, cal. 1570. Some of these Perpetuals featured a date complication and were branded, Air- King Date. These automatics had thicker Oyster case dimensions.

The manually wound Air-Kings used Precision and Super Precision-class movements. These references are considered desirable for their slimmer case profiles.

Through the 1950s and 1960s, the Air-King formula remained unchanged, as the 34mm (Mid Size) Oyster complemented the larger Datejust (36mm).

During the 1970s the Air-King line received movement upgrades to the chronometer cal. 1570, and eventually achieved full COSC certification in 2007.

Rolex retired the Air-King in 2014. By this time it had become a thoroughly contemporary watch, offered in 26mm, 31mm, 34mm, and 36mm sizes. The decision to retire the Air-King was to make way for the Rolex Oyster Perpetual and avoid the two lines competing in the same market segment.

The Air-King was relaunched with a radical and modern reinterpretation in 2016 with ref. 116900. This new interpretation is also a highly polarizing design and has all the hallmarks of a future classic collectible.

If you'd like to learn more about the Air-King and other references, consult the acclaimed Vintage Rolex Field Guide.