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What would cause the atmosphere to be so cruel that a plane would fall when it attempts to fly higher than 250 feet? Please hypothesize and give extensive reasoning.

The phenomenon should not significantly affect the Earth's surface itself, not to the point of total death on the surface. It must be in the window of natural occurrences. No aliens, robots or humans' hand from land.

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  • $\begingroup$ Crash with what? air? please elaborate more otherwise you are expecting us to generate ideas which isn't nice. $\endgroup$
    – user6760
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 10:00
  • $\begingroup$ I edited it to word fall. And no its not aliens, so it's in the window of natural occurrences. I'm not implying anything physical, since 500 feet represent obvious link to something to do with air not a pack of crows. Atmospheric compression becoming to low. A dome that covers the stratosphere with lightning strikes. Jet streams being hexed into mosaic pattern. You name it. $\endgroup$
    – user10476
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 10:24
  • $\begingroup$ I still unsure what your question is all about but low visibility at the altitude like a supervolcano erupting tonnes of ash... That's probably way too natural so maybe the world is bracing for a nuclear holocaust and any thing on the radar shall be forced down via subs remember China succeeded in launching a missile to destroy an old satellite in orbit from a sub in the water. $\endgroup$
    – user6760
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 10:36
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    $\begingroup$ are you aware that 500 feet is absolute minimum for flying comparably safe, and only over uninhabited ground? Almost everywhere (at least all "first world" countries i know of, demand min. 1000 ft above ground over any kind of settlement. Plus, at this altitude a pilot is really busy. $\endgroup$
    – Burki
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 12:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Burki your statement about 500 feet minimum flying altitude reminded me of an interview I had with a retired A-10 pilot. He said that there were only a handful of pilots qualified to fly below 500 feet (might have been 250 ft, I don't remember) because at that altitude, all you're doing is flying the plan. There is no mission, not much situational awareness, all the pilot's concentration is on not crashing. $\endgroup$
    – Green
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 13:15

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Couple of potentials here. Not sure how serious or what specific genre in sci-fi you're looking at so I've just done a bit of a brain dump.

Predation

Are there predators that prey on aircraft? Genetically engineered eagles or similar that eat planes? 500ft is quite low - any lower and they can't manoeuvre effectively or similar?

Restricted Airspace

Is there a malevolent AI or corporation that that destroys any attempts to get higher than 500ft. The "floor" of the restricted area could be down to radar or weapons reach?

This could be via several different methods - Nanomachinery, drones, airpower, satellite based weaponry, floating mines, ground based surface-air weapons platforms etc.

The motivation could be anything you like as well - Religious, extreme environmentalism, extreme corporatism, alien colonisation, military experiment gone wrong

Weather

Think The Matrix - "We do know it was us that scorched the sky" - Man made/natural storms which sit at exactly 501 ft. Impossible to fly through. Lightning destroys any plane trying to fly through it. These could be thin enough for light to permeate through, meaning this wouldn't restrict solar power, photosynthesis etc.

Solar Radiation

Has the atmosphere degenerated to the point where only short excursions outside a protected area are viable without dying from radiation damage from the sun? Total death on the surface is not necessarily a conclusion of this - life finds a way. Obviously this would seriously affect the setting - desertification is a clear result.

Other Cataclysm

Are there floating rocks due to an unspecified cataclysm leading to floating rocks at 500ft. They don't need to be big to cause serious issues. Just one every few metres would seriously affect any attempts at flying.

Is there an extremely localised EM field which kills anything electronic at >500ft?

Are there floating plasma fields at 500Ft which destroy anything going through them?

Are there tiny antimatter pockets above 500ft which don't interact with local matter unless disturbed - by say flying a large metal object through them?

Just some ideas. Hopefully these could help :)

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for your speculation. I don't want to copy Matrix, but my vision has been leading in that direction. Something dark and creepy, that makes people go by land. As the seas are emitted with radiation. It is certainly not animals or aliens. $\endgroup$
    – user10476
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 10:35
  • $\begingroup$ You don't have to copy the matrix with the cloud idea. It could be any reason that the sky is now inaccessible - was it a science experiment gone wrong? clouds of nanomachines that eat metal? It certainly just doesn't mean "We destroyed the sky to deny our enemies solar power" :) $\endgroup$
    – Miller86
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 10:37
  • $\begingroup$ I just want to put some distinct visual flavor into the sky, so readers could be like Neo-wowing (roof scene). And with a variety of visual attributes, complex story should come into play. So there might be 3-4 reasons why the sky is that bad. $\endgroup$
    – user10476
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 10:44
  • $\begingroup$ Nanomachines could be a cool multi-option solution. Swarms of the little buggers, which eat metal, form explosive or solid clumps, put out an EM field which kills the power, drains the powersupplies of anything there, and is generally bad for anything inside the cloud of them. This could lead to some interesting results where your hero(es) are trying to flee in something cobbled together with string, duct tape and an engine, and have to dip into the cloud briefly. How do they deal with the resulting problems? $\endgroup$
    – Miller86
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 10:49
  • $\begingroup$ Additionally this would be fun to describe- think clouds shifting endlessly, lights and colours interplaying as the nanomachinery collides and shifts, streams of metal shifting from one "cloud" to another... I might have to "borrow" this idea myself for a RPG campaign I'm about to run :) $\endgroup$
    – Miller86
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 10:53
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Ground Effect Only Aircraft

This doesn't really go with your "spaceship" tag but it's a reason that a ship won't make it above 500ft. There's a type of airship that uses something called the ground effect to increase lift and reduce drag at lower altitudes. If the group that you're writing about hasn't learned the advanced metallurgy that will allow them to make strong and light metals for use in airframes or engines then their airships will demand the extra lift and reduced drag that comes from the ground effect.

Note that there are quite a few implausibilities here:

  • Ground effect aircraft are typically huge, hundreds of feet of wingspan
  • Ground effect was discovered by people who were already flying higher than ground effect and encountered it on the way down.
  • Building aircraft that large is possible with wood (Spruce Goose) but has only happened once.

Superstition

All it would take is a freak accident at 500ft for the presiding religious authority to proclaim that flying above 500ft is heretical and punishable by the worst ecclesiastical penalties. Ridiculous restrictions like that happen all the time.

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  • $\begingroup$ This kind of "air"craft is called an Ecranoplan, or ground effect vehicle. There have been some very interesting examples. $\endgroup$
    – Burki
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 13:52