Type “women’s pilot watch” into an Internet search engine. Chances are high that the first — and possibly only — company name that pops up will be The Abingdon Co. And that’s just fine with 28-year-old Chelsea Abingdon Welch, the company’s founder.
“I knew from about the age of 14 that I wanted a career in aviation,” Welch recalled, but admits that she didn’t plan to go into manufacturing timepieces for pilots.
According to Welch, the idea for the company got its start in 2006 when she was pursuing her private pilot ticket and discovered that no one made aviator watches sized or styled for women.
“You could buy a man’s watch, but it was bulky and black or brown, and you know a MAN’S watch,” she said.
Welch reasoned she wasn’t the only woman pilot who wanted the functionality an aviator watch that didn’t feel like a boat anchor on her wrist.
“A bunch of women got together and we did the first two designs, which were the Jackie model and the Amelia model,” she recalled, noting that they felt it only fitting to name the first two models after Jackie Cochrane and Amelia Earhart, two of the most famous female aviators. “The watches have Zulu time on them, a stop watch, and an E-6B slide rule — everything you need to make calculations in the cockpit.”
Abingdon watches are finished with mother-of-pearl faces, crystals and diamonds and pastel colors. The watchbands are available in silver metal or black or white leather.
“As you can see, they are all sorts of brightness in addition to functionality,” Welch said, proudly displaying the two watches she wears, one on each wrist. “The faces are pink, or blue and green and all sorts of brightness.”
Welch’s flying career began at the same time her manufacturing career did, just after college and a stint in the Peace Corps.
“In 2006 I walked onto Santa Monica Airport to interview each of the schools. I had no job and little money. The questions I asked each of the five flight schools were, ‘Can you teach me how to fly quickly? Do you have any jobs available? And will you pay for my flight training?’ To my surprise, one school said yes to all three questions and I began a paid internship there that involved trading work for flight lessons. One year later, I left with a commercial rating and 230 hours of flight time.”
While most who desire careers in aviation become flight instructors to build experience, Welch built her hours by working as a demo pilot for Cirrus Aircraft.
“The Cirrus dealership was right next door to the flight school,” she said. “Cirrus hired me right after I passed my commercial checkride.”
For the next year or so Welch traveled around the country, showing Cirrus SR20s and SR22s to perspective clients and representing the company at various airshows and fly-ins.
The Abingdon Co. was a sideline, something Welch worked on in her spare time.
“I always kept the two separate,” she recalled. “In fact, most of the people at Cirrus never knew about The Abingdon Co. If I went to a trade show for Cirrus, then I was dedicated to Cirrus. It didn’t seem fair to try to market my company when I was on the dime of another. Only in my spare time did I work to grow The Abingdon Co.”
Soon the watch company began to take more of her time, although she still made time to ferry airplanes around the country to aviation events, while working on getting her flight instructor certificate. The CFI ticket — and a chance encounter at last year’s AirVenture with the cast of the cable television show “Flying Wild Alaska” — opened another door for Welch. The reality television show focuses on the lives of the Tweto family and their family-run airline, Era Alaska, which services the remote Alaskan wilderness.
“I honestly didn’t have a TV so I had never seen the show,” Welch said. “I asked one of the characters, Ariel Tweto, what they flew. She said ‘oh a bunch of Cessnas. Caravans and 207s.’ I said ‘Carvans! that’s my favorite airplane!’ I told her that my idea of a good time was to get a Caravan and put it on floats and pack it full of beer and friends and disappear into a lake in Canada for a couple of weeks. She said ‘great, I need your number.’ We ended up becoming good friends.”
At the time Tweto was going to college in Southern California where Welch was living. Tweto was also working on her private pilot ticket, so she hired Welch for instruction.
“She hadn’t flown in a few months so we went up for a few lessons and I helped her get her landings back,” Welch said.
Tweto still hadn’t finished her ticket when the time came for her to return to Alaska.
“Without my knowledge she pitched it to the producers to bring me up as a flight instructor,” said Welch.
The producers said yes and Welch headed for Alaska to teach Arial to fly on television no less.
There were no Hollywood dramatics when it came to the checkride, said Welch, except for the fact that it had to be administered by an FAA representative who came out from Anchorage.
“The ride took seven hours,” said Welch, noting that is about three times the length of the average private pilot checkride, “because the FAA examiner went down through the practical test standards line by line because it had been so long since he had done a private pilot checkride. After the checkride he said that it was one of the best checkrides that he’d ever administered.”
The television show provided more exposure for The Abingdon Co. and during this year’s AirVenture the company’s booth had a steady flow of customers.
“The reception we got was amazing,” Welch said. The “we” she speaks of is a crew of six people, the men and women who make up the company. Many of the ideas for watch designs come from customers, she noted.
“We read every single email that comes to us and the messages that come to us via Facebook and Twitter to see what features people want in a watch,” she said.
As the clock ran out on 2012 Welch, who splits her time between Las Vegas and Southern California, was working on the expansion of the Abingdon product line, adding to her flight hours from the right seat, and working on giving back to aviation.
“In January we award the ‘It’s about time’ scholarship, which is designed to get more people involved in aviation,” she said. “We are also a sponsor for the Think Global Flight (an around the world flight to promote the study of science, technology, engineering and math).”
She also has plans for the company’s product line to extend outside the world of aviation, into sports like NASCAR and the like where women fans are in the minority.
When asked where she sees herself in five years, Welch replies, “I’m doing it! I’m living the dream — running my own company and ferrying airplanes around!”
For more information: TheAbingdonCo.com