How My Watch Saved My Life: One Man's Story On How He Cheated Death

The Grim Reaper is not a fan

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Google Quentin Smith and you'd be forgiven for thinking you've stumbled across someone's obituary. As one of the world's most renowned helicopter pilots (who casually first sat in the pilot seat aged five), 52-year-old Quentin, or Captain Q as he's known in the industry, seems to have a habit of cheating death on repeat.

The two-time helicopter aerobatic world champion has circumnavigated the world twice and made headlines this year when his Eurocopter AS350 hit the rear deck of a 195ft Bacarella yacht, before dramatically flipping into the water.

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But that wasn't his first dice with death. Breaking records as the first helicopter pilot to fly to both the North and South poles, and gaining his pilot's license at 20, means on any given day, Captain Q can find himself in a fair share of sketchy situations. Like when he crashed into the Antarctic in 2003 and drifted on a life-raft for almost ten hours before being rescued by the Navy.

He shared his amazing (and mostly terrifying) stories with us at Esquire Townhouse during his Breitling talk this year (scroll down to watch the video), and it appears the way to survive if you're caught in dire straits is a combo of a) being a badass and b) having the right tech. The right tech being a Breitling, the master of technical watches.

Quentin Smith at Esquire Townhouse with the watch that saved his life
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"It is slightly embarrassing," he admits. "The first time was in the Drake passage (famously known as the 'roughest sea in the world' with one degree centigrade water).

"People were reluctant for us to fly across because they said it was impossible. And, within 20 seconds, we were hitting the water.

"It was enough time to reorganise our lives and we did it in a relatively positive frame of mind. I pressed send on a satellite phone, I called the air traffic control telephone number but it was in Spanish and neither of us understood each other.

I just remember feeling terribly sorry for him that he would die feeling ill

"He turned what people were expecting to be an old-school rock and roll show into an old-school revival meeting."

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"So, I phoned my Pa and said, 'Hi there, don't worry too much but I'm probably not going to make it. I'm in a dinghy and we're all fine and this is where we are."

Stuck in a life raft for nine and a half hours with his co-pilot Steve, Quentin said they had no prospect of surviving.

"I guess that makes you less fearful of dying," he tells us.

"So it was much more pleasant except that Steve felt seasick and I just remember feeling terribly sorry for him that he would die feeling ill."

It was then Captain Q thought of his watch, the key to his survival and one that every adventurer should wear based on the following.

"I then signalled my 1215 VHF Breitling watch which you twist and pull to get an antenna up and it sends a bleep to headquarters as an automatic emergency notification. And, then a Chilean icebreaker came and found us after being alerted by the watch."

This wasn't Quentin's only qualification as a member of 'The Goldfish Club' (the worldwide association of people who have escaped an aircraft that crashed into the water), though.

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As the founder of HQ Aviation flight school in Buckinghamshire (which holds the biggest helicopter fleet in the UK, naturally), the Guinness World Record holder and 'God in a flying suit' (as referred to by The Stig), you'll have a few under your belt. Some more dicey than others.

During the incident with the yacht earlier this year, it wasn't just Quentin's life that was in danger, but his passengers' too. "We had a very nice day," he recalls.

We were 8000ft looking out over the glorious North Sea...we wound up in the water in 6secs

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"We started in London, flew up the length of the country and it was stunning. We went up to the Scottish valleys, found a great pub for lunch, continued up into the Shetlands and right across the North Sea. Then, we found ourselves 178 miles across the Shetlands to Bergen and it was a beautiful day. We were 8000ft looking out over the whole of the glorious North Sea.

"We arrived in Bergen, cleared customs and tried to pick up fuel - but on approach, something blew up into the rotor and broke something. The accident report isn't out yet so we don't know exactly what happened but we do know that we wound up in the water in six seconds.

"It wasn't that cold there - about eight degrees centigrade - so that was okay but we were in the sea with people stuck inside. The vibrations were so strong and although they didn't break our neck, it did strain our muscles. We were doing at six hertz a second so our heads were seven and a half times heavier going left to right."

What came next sounded particularly dramatic.

"My leg got hammered to smithereens by my watch that was on my wrist while I was trying to control the thing. It's tricky under those circumstances as it's quite violent on your body. The controls went absolutely rock solid and were very hard to move as the hydraulic system was overwhelmed. It was a narrow escape."

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But, it wasn't until Quentin had made his exit straight up to the surface that he realised he left his passengers inside.

I was very lucky because I got down and I found an arm floating in the murk

"I was embarrassingly unmoved by it while it was happening. I opened the door, undid my seatbelt, got out, then I realised the guys are sinking so somebody has to do something."

However, Quentin's strict military courses always teach people that you never go back into the aircraft once you've managed to get out.

"A lot goes through your mind in a short time," Quentin remembers. 'There are a lot of considerations about whether the helicopter is sinking and if it's the best and easiest time to get out. I tried to work out if I could inflate the helicopter floats so I went back in and turned the float switch and that made the helicopter float but it made it much harder to get out."

Eventually everyone exited the aircraft and are now all fully recovered - but it wasn't easy.

"The reality of it is that it's difficult. It hurts to pull people out and you're a bit exhausted. Plus, you can't see anything in the water as the visibility is very bad. I was very lucky because I got down and I found an arm floating in the murk and pulled it and that was my friend - so, he was very happy about that."

Quentin Smith at Esquire Townhouse

At the end of the day though, no matter how many times he almost dies it's not collisions or misadventure that scare him most.

"The most dangerous thing that anyone can do is not live. I spend a reasonable proportion of my day about 2/10s of a second from death," he says.

"I remember reaching 21 and feeling like I'd failed. I hadn't intended to live that long and I didn't want to live so gently. I thought everyone was like James Dean in that live fast, die young kind of way. Now I'm married with kids and my children say, 'Dad, I'm going to fly a helicopter across the world' and I say, 'Sure! The worst that could happen is that you die'".

"The whole relationship with danger is very funny," Quentin says. "I regard danger as the execution of things which people might consider to be dangerous and executing it well for it to not be dangerous."

But, your steely balls can only get you so far. Opting for a watch that can save your life seems like a good investment, particularly given that Captain Q isn't the only man to find himself in hairy situations where you owe your life to your time piece.

Neil Laughton and Sir David Hempleman-Adams, who also told their stories during the Esquire Townhouse Breitling adventure talk, can also credit their survival to their Breitling emergency watch. Watch what happened at the event below:

Whether you're taking to the skies or not, Breitling has you covered with the utmost precision and reliability. Shop the range here.