Well obviously, if a plane is flying 100 feet or meters off the ground and and flying at only 50 miles per hour, the bomb would hit the ground and explode before the plane could get far enough away to escape from the blast. But could a realistic plane chosen to be a bomber find it impossible to fly high and fast enough to escape from the blast of an atomic bomb it dropped? And if so, what would be the parameters of the situation?

This is inspired by this question at History stack Exchange:


On the planet Earth, in our real history, airplanes were highly developed by the time that atomic bombs were invented, and airplane bombing had already killed tens and hundreds of thousands of people.

And a writer can always arbitrarily decree that in their fictional world nuclear physics advanced much more rapidly than on Earth while aeronautics advanced much more slowly, and thus when the first atomic bombs are invented the only airplanes with enough cargo capacity to carry and drop atomic bombs fly too low and too slow to get away from the blast in time.

But what about a world designed so that it would be very difficult for the natives to have advanced enough aviation when they develop atomic bombs and for as long a time as possible after that?

The natives could have a different body plan than humans and be much smaller or larger than humans. If they are much smaller than humans, their planes might be much smaller than human planes, and so building a plane big enough to carry an atomic bomb might be very hard, and the first planes capable of carrying atomic bombs might be incapable of lying fast or high.

Possibly the natives are the size of the largest elephant species or of sauropod dinosaurs and can only build one person airplanes, and those don't have enough cargo capacity to hold atomic bombs.

Maybe they can't drop bombs with parachutes to slow down the descent and give the plane time to get away because every place they want to bomb is too windy and the bomb would be blown off target.

I'm thinking that an Earth like planet with higher surface gravity would probably have a compressed atmosphere where atmospheric pressure would drop off more steeply with altitude. If the atmospheric pressure is too great for the natives to survive at sea level, they might only be able to survive in highland areas. If the surface gravity is much higher than on Earth, a bomb would fall much faster, giving a plane less time to get away from the blast, so the plane would have to fly faster. With a compressed atmosphere, the plane would have a lower altitude range compared to Earth, and so would have to drop the bomb at a lower height above the target.

And possibly the natives haven't invented the internal combustion engine yet and/or don't have access to petroleum to refine into airplane fuel, and thus have very inefficient airplanes.

So can anyone calculate what such a planet would be like to have have airplanes incapable of delivering atomic bombs and surviving the blast?

  • $\begingroup$ Loosely related on Skeptics. $\endgroup$ May 24, 2020 at 18:28
  • $\begingroup$ Surviving the blast or surviving the mission? Thee was some question as to the planes dropping the bombs over Japan would have enough fuel to return. $\endgroup$ May 24, 2020 at 18:40
  • $\begingroup$ Just a guess after reading the title but... point-blank range? $\endgroup$
    – Nyakouai
    May 25, 2020 at 0:12
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "the bomb would hit the ground and explode" I'll just note that it likely wouldn't. If you are trying to make a nuclear explosion & you get things a bit off your device will blow itself apart when only a minute fraction of the fissionable material has fissioned & you get an explosion not much bigger than from a similar mass of chemical explosive. This is a predetonation resulting in a fizzle. Fission bombs use some chemical explosive to put the fissionable material in a supercritical configuration. The bomb hitting the ground would make the chemical explosive go off in a way that results in $\endgroup$
    – Jim Baerg
    May 25, 2020 at 19:45
  • $\begingroup$ a predetonation & fizzle $\endgroup$
    – Jim Baerg
    May 25, 2020 at 19:46

6 Answers 6


A desperate weapon goes along with other desperate measures

Any bomb/bomber system that is designed in peace-time with plenty of resources available is certainly going to be designed and built to work without destroying the plane or killing the pilots. But in a desperate situation, desperate measures might be taken. One option is that, like the Doolittle raid, you have planes that have enough fuel to reach the target but not enough to get back to base. Tweak it a bit and you have planes that run out of fuel right at the target and have to crash-land within the blast radius.

Another option is that you simply have the wrong plane design. Maybe it's a plane that will be unflyable if the bomb produces an EMP that destroys its electronics. Perhaps it is has all electronic controls rather than hydraulics. (Maybe the creators of the bomb don't know about the EMP, so they never realized this flaw.) Or maybe this was a wholly unsuitable plane that was pressed into service because nothing else was available. Perhaps it doesn't have bomb-bay doors, or perhaps the only way to push the bomb out the doors is to depressurize the cabin and suffocate the crew.

In sum, I think you have to throw in an element of desperate, last-minute measures into the mix. Something that thwarts careful planning.


The enemy can detonate your nuke

Your enemy has technology that lets them cause the fission of your nuclear warhead at a distance. So the moment they realize you are coming for them they detonate the nuke as far as possible from them. This means that they detonate it immediately before you get closer. Your nuke has a large radius, and has a lot of radiation, so if there is a city that needs to be destroyed that is 10 miles across, your bomb has a 30 mile radius, and they can detonate your bomb at 25 miles, then getting close enough for them to detonate your nuke kills half the city. Sacrificing a plane and crew for this may seem extreme, but if dropping it a mile early will not destroy a critical target, it may be worth it.

this means the mission of the plane is to fly toward the city and then wait for them to detonate your nuke. If they don't just continue the run and bomb them, but it is not likely that you will survive since they will probably detonate the nuke in your cargo hold first.


Your planet has a thick atmosphere, 100x as much as Earth, but it has only 1/2% of oxygen. (That's enough oxygen for a human, although there's nothing that could comprise the other gases that wouldn't be deadly to a human.)

Such an atmosphere doesn't support fire in any form. The best aircraft is a dirigible. The only way you could get clear is to drop it with a timer--but that means the people at the target can destroy it. (Hollywood gets this wrong--virtually all nukes can be destroyed with an anti-tank rocket. You get a big mess but no nuclear yield. Note that rockets don't rely on the atmosphere and thus work, although their range will be limited.)

It is going to be very hard to develop technology because you have progress well up chemistry before you can refine metal.

  • $\begingroup$ With an atmosphere that thick, I'd start thinking batteries and electric motors would be viable means of powering planes. Energy density would be poor, so they might not be able to sustain running the motors constantly. Flights might be characterized by a powered takeoff; slow, unpowered or mostly unpowered glides to and from the destination; and quick, powered combat maneuvering. Oh, and rockets. You could use rockets to propel your plane. Again, lower energy density since you've now got to carry oxidizer, too, but also still less effort needed to fly, so less fuel and oxidizer needed. $\endgroup$
    – 8bittree
    May 27, 2020 at 16:03
  • $\begingroup$ @8bittree Batteries don't hold enough power. I'm figuring it would be tanks of fuel and oxidizer, but turning a turbine to drive propellers. When you try to go fast you're going to be seriously limited by drag being 100x what it is on Earth. $\endgroup$ May 29, 2020 at 2:13

Planes armored against super effective anti-aircraft fire.

In your world, anti-aircraft fire is accurate and effective. The answer has been to armor planes, making them into flying tanks that can withstand hit after hit. But these effective flak guns also routinely take out bombs in midair, causing them to detonate or to be so badly damaged that they hit the ground without going off. This latter result is a definite possibility for a finicky nuclear bomb that needs to have its layers just so if it is to detonate.

The answer is to make the plane the bomb. One of these flying tanks is going to have to fly the bomb directly into its target, kamikaze style. The plane will dive, getting hammered by anti-aircraft fire all the way down, and detonate the bomb just above the ground.


You can only make sure pilots don't escape while air tech is still being developed

The Tsar Bomba used a parachute since they knew they needed time to get away from the blast radius. With more time they could develop a rudimentary helicopter or rocket to have it hover until they are far enough away and then drop. They could also just do a cruise missile and fly away while the missile flies. Weapons developers are smart people, and if there is a way to solve it will be found. Therefore the only thing stopping them from protecting pilots is not having the tech, like autonomous flight or high flight or supersonic flight. The actual challenge of keeping the bomb in the air is not complex by modern standards. building a helicopter to hold the bomb and deploy from a bomber is relatively simple.

Why would people do flights that guarantee their death?

Assuming the tech is still being developed then the answer would be the same as the answer for kamikaze pilots. However, once tech to stop this is developed this will stop.

Ok, how do I stop planes from escaping the blast no matter how developed they get?

The weight of a bomb is less than the payloads of helicopters, or missiles, and planes can carry missiles and helicopters of that size. therefore the only way to ensure there is no escape is to ensure that there is no escape at all.

small world

Simple, you planet is so small that the shock wave would destroy the plane, since the shock wave will destroy the entire atmosphere of the planet. The plane doesn't have space capabilities, since if it did it would be a space-plane, so the shock wave will overpower and destroy the plane.

  • $\begingroup$ The Tsar Bomba had the third stage replaced with lead, since the proposed 100MT yield would not allow the aircraft to escape, among other things. If the third stage had been built out of depleted uranium, then the aircrew would have had no escape. Bombs with even higher yields are theoretically possible, even a supersonic or hypersonic aircraft would have difficulty clearing the flash or blast radius of a Gigaton weapon. $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    May 26, 2020 at 15:39

The problem with this train of thought is they would not have considered a plane to be a reliable delivery mechanism in the first place.

A plane flying that slow and low (50 knots, 50 meters altitude) would not be able to carry a 5-ton bomb, assuming something similar to Fat Man or Little Boy in size (4.7 and 4.4 metric tons, respectively). It can barely keep itself flying. I mean, that's slower than the planes in WW1. Early war Nieuport 11 can do 162km/h at 2000 ft. That's basically Wright Flyer 2.0 (circa 1908). It may be able to carry mail and ONE passenger, but a bomb? Forget it. Neither Structure nor engine power can carry such a payload, even if they can "scale up" the fuselage.

And any attempt to lighten the bomb would result in enough radiation to kill the crew long before they arrive at the target area.


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