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The more I look at it, the more my world seems to resemble the world of Avatar the Last Airbender, but instead of benders I have casters which are capable of unique talents (combat magic, enhancements, healing, psychics, elemental control, energy control etc.).

At the current state of development, the world is effectively in the medieval age while one particular nation is well within the industrial age. While the rest of the world still relies on carriages and ships powered by sails for transport, the most advanced nation has access to railways and warships. Their latest invention so far is a giant ship that specializes in carrying vast numbers of smaller combat ships, basically a medieval ship carrier which I'm also working on and I received help via this question.

I need a reliable and feasible way to deny my fantasy world any sort of aviation and remove the invention of flight from the equation altogether, because I don't want it to take shape of our modern world where Aircraft carriers are the undisputed rulers of the seas and any sort of threat can be destroyed with a well placed bombing run. I don't want any sort of planes or any sort of flying contraptions in the air, but I'm having serious difficulties coming up with a rational explanation to prevent such an evolution. After all, birds and flying creatures have always been around and I have no idea how to prevent the people from looking at them without trying to copy their flight and eventually succeeding.

PS EDIT: Someone in the comments asked "How absolutely no-flight must answers be?" To be honest, at first I was considering an absolute handwave of everything even remotely aerial, but given all the responses I'm genuinely confused where to draw the line. Ballooning? Kiting? After a bit of discussing, seems the restrictions would be drawn at any flight contraptions that move at a considerable speed similar to airplanes. Balloons and kites aren't of much use if you have strong casters within the enemy lines who could firebolt them out of the sky or even stronger casters who could manipulate the winds to screw them over.

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    $\begingroup$ Flight is always needed. Your ecosystem will have a lot of trouble if you don't have even the flight of pollen, or the insects that often carry them. I think it'll be more prudent to try to prevent flight for humans than for the whole ecosystem. $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    Jun 15 at 14:19
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    $\begingroup$ Well that's exactly what I'm trying to do, prevent the humans from attaining flight. Since it isn't perfectly clear I'll edit the title of the question :) $\endgroup$ Jun 15 at 14:22
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    $\begingroup$ "Aircraft carriers are the undisputed rulers of the seas": Or are they? Aircraft carriers are great against poor undefended countries, but in a conflict against, for example, the People's Republic, no enemy carrier would dare come within 1000 miles of the coast. Aircraft carriers are big, slow, unarmored targets; you may have noticed that there is only one country on Earth which maintains numerous aircraft carriers; but other countries, including potential peer-adversaries of that one country, have anti-ship rocket missiles. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jun 15 at 14:31
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    $\begingroup$ There are several pre-industrial flight models: Ballooning and chinese sky lanterns, and kites, both of which carried a few humans well before the industrial revolution. How absolutely no-flight must answers be? $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Jun 15 at 14:44
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    $\begingroup$ @ArgentHellion It's extreme, yes, but I think it's the only way to completely ban human flight in a world where birds exist (and flight is fundamentally possible). Otherwise there are just too many options like hot air balloons, blimps, gliders, rockets, and even things like manned kites that let people fly. Hot air balloons are especially difficult to get rid of, because they're so simple and a pre-industrial technology. $\endgroup$
    – Dragongeek
    Jun 15 at 17:10

23 Answers 23

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Magic is a dense material.

Magic is quite dense. It tends to fall down with gravity, and tends to cling to the earth. As such, if you get too far above the ground, there tends to be little magic left.

Many have attempted to fly, and you can get a bit off the ground, but soon you find your magic drains, any magical storage devices fail, and you crash into the ground.

Natural magical creatures fly with either the aid of physics or short lived bursts of stored magic. There are no mega heavy flyers.

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    $\begingroup$ That's a... pretty damn unique way of looking at things. I might wanna delve into it, thank you for suggesting, have an upvote :D $\endgroup$ Jun 15 at 14:46
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    $\begingroup$ I'm pretty sure I read a book, where there were magic users but none of them could fly very high because the way they explained it was, that to fly with magic you have to push yourself off from the earth, so the further away you were the exponentially more difficult it was. I'm not entirely sure of the exact explanation but I think they may have used the moment arm as the reasoning. $\endgroup$
    – Aequitas
    Jun 16 at 3:36
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    $\begingroup$ No magic in the moutains then ? $\endgroup$
    – Echox
    Jun 16 at 8:54
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    $\begingroup$ @NepeneNep, but wouldn't flying the boring (physics based) way then be even more beneficial? You could get yourself out of range of those pesky magic users and use physics based weaponry to inflict pain on anyone not guarding their top as well as their left, right, front, and back... (de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fliegerpfeil would be a starting point, but not the end of the line...) $\endgroup$ Jun 16 at 10:01
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    $\begingroup$ joined this stackexchange just to upvote this answer. $\endgroup$
    – TKoL
    Jun 17 at 11:03
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You don't need explain why there is no flight.

Just write your book or whatever you are doing without flight. If when you are done you think you need an explanation, check out the other great answers here.

For example, I read somewhere (on this site I think) that the creators of Groundhog Day tried to explain the repeating day with some voodoo witch stuff. Obviously they decided to leave it out, leaving no explanation, but the end result is still a great movie.

Maybe you could leave some vague references to past events, like a failed test or something bad that happened to make it a mystery. This lets the reader (if it's a book) wonder about it, and makes it more interesting. J. R. R. Tolkien often did this, telling of peoples/countries that disappeared/were destroyed without fully explain everything (like the Entwives) to keep things mysterious.

So you don't necessarily have to explain why there isn't flight.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm gonna +1 this answer because I've mentioned the very same thing in answers a number of times. Authors too often get caught up in the need to explain every little detail. Unless the reason flight isn't available is critical to the plot of the story, don't bother explaining it at all. Like the old adage that if you walk through a room acting like you belong there no one will notice you, if you write your story without flight acting like it has no reason to be there, only really nit-picky people will care. Half your readers won't even notice it's missing. $\endgroup$ Jun 15 at 22:51
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    $\begingroup$ I knew I forgot something ;). Ty for the extra details! $\endgroup$ Jun 16 at 3:01
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH perfect example of this was the matrix, where they try to explain the motivations of the machines with humans = batteries, which makes no sense if you know anything about thermodynamics. You can come up with a really good explanation that actually makes sense (humans = neural networks!) if you know stuff but often the best way is as this answer suggests - no real explanation at all. $\endgroup$
    – eps
    Jun 16 at 20:27
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    $\begingroup$ There's still a problem with the humans = neural networks idea. If you're going to spend time using humans as CPUs, why would you want to waste most of their processing power (or 10%, if you prefer that idea) on a virtual world simulation rather than your other tasks? $\endgroup$
    – Miral
    Jun 17 at 0:22
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    $\begingroup$ @Miral Otherwise they degrade. $\endgroup$
    – wizzwizz4
    Jun 18 at 20:24
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There is no oil

In your world, it can lack the power of oil, or knowledge how to make powerful fuel from it. In our world, oil was seen as a bad thing for a long time. It took time before they found a use for the black sludge of dead plant organisms.

Without such a powerful energy source at your disposal, it is difficult to get alternatives that are strong enough for flight. At least for flight that is useful as (long range) attack craft. We currently struggle to get electricity powered planes for example. Alternatives like Hydrogen often require their own set of difficult technologies. Hydrogen as an example requires great knowledge on creating and maintaining high pressure containers. Not to mention Hydrogen cells if you want to create electricity.

Oil exists, because you want to change a little as possible. Why do they not use it?

Not all discoveries have happened instantly. In our world, we build aircraft without looking (much) at what did it before. We didn't use bird aerodynamics or anything like it. We build structures that were strange and inefficient. But this is a black sludge coming out of the ground that just pollutes things. There might be no interest at all in it, or even attempts to avoid it for it's bad effects. Even if there is interest, it is very difficult to get powerful fuel out of it. They might just be stuck with using it as lube and lamp oil and never think to further investigate it, or not in the right directions.

There are many discoveries that could've happened earlier. There are probably still a lot that haven't been discovered yet, but had things happened differently, might've seen these as obvious. Then these could be difficult to imagine no one finding out their use. It could be incredibly difficult as well. An example.

If most tales of Tesla are to be believed, he had a method to electrify many lamps without wires. How he did this is unknown. If this was investigated and the knowledge extracted, we might think it is obvious that a lot of lamps are wireless.

Another example. We might not have antibiotics for a long time, were it not for the incompetence of a man that let some of his bacteria cultures get contaminated.

Thus oil might not be considered, or not be pursued in the right way for it to become a powerful fuel. Without powerful fuel, it is difficult to create aviation. The aviation that does exist (if at all) will generally be unsuitable for attacking targets, as the investment will to too large and the damage too little.

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    $\begingroup$ No oil also likely means no helium (at least in our world). Hydrogen blimps are a little more difficult to explain away. Good thing they are wildly hazardous, or at least, hazardous enough to make a few really bad experiences to deter everyone else. Hot air might be tricky to deter though. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Jun 15 at 14:42
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    $\begingroup$ Oil (fossil fuel) doesn't exist, explosives also don't exist, but the most advanced nation does have access to energy that's an equivalent of our electrical energy, which they use to power their engines, light and pretty much everything. Seems the only way to negate the issue is to make those engines too bulky or weak to sustain any sort of flying contraption... brainstorming here :) $\endgroup$ Jun 15 at 14:45
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    $\begingroup$ @DKNguyen Hydrogen airships are only not used because there are safer alternatives. I mean, they were extensively used around WWI and people back then weren't stupid, they just calculated it as an acceptable risk when compared with the payoff of the high ground $\endgroup$
    – Dragongeek
    Jun 15 at 17:06
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    $\begingroup$ I suspect hydrogen blimps would quickly be seen as deathtraps if the first reflex for any mage is to lob a fireball at them $\endgroup$
    – Pingcode
    Jun 16 at 1:03
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    $\begingroup$ Combustion engines can run on alcohol. Replace "oil" with combustion engine. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Jun 16 at 5:20
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It is crazy windy all the time.

Your world is always windy and especially at sea. Sails are great and they do have flight in the form of manned kites. But in a world where you can count on 30 mph winds it is hard to take those first baby steps towards flight, even if you have all the fixings in place.

The closest your world comes to flight is fixed wing one person airboats that can use the ground effect to zip along just above the water. Even these are risky because a gust that tips a wing into the water could be catastrophic, but these water-level raiders are super fast and a good use of your aircraft carriers.

Also good story making when a ground effect pilot uses a wave to jump the aircraft carrier, making eye contact with astonished persons on deck as he crosses over.

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  • $\begingroup$ I am thinking of a boarding party wearing flying squirrel suits. They get upwind of the enemy, climb their mast and jump 500 yards across to the other boat. They would be ferocious coming in at speed with the wind at their backs. Maybe some could touch down and then skip up from the water. That is the sort of visual that could be in an Airbender-type anime but if I saw it I don't remember where. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Jun 15 at 16:00
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    $\begingroup$ "Crazy windy" would certainly throw a wrench into the rest of the world development, as I stated in the initial explanation the world relies on ships with sails to travel the oceans. More to the point, I recently improved the evolution status of sailing ships and effectively made them more than twice as fast as the recorded sailing (real world) ships. $\endgroup$ Jun 15 at 16:29
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    $\begingroup$ misclicked, sorry. Yeah predictable winds are great for sailing ships, but too much wind can tear the sails apart or even turn the entire ship over. Not to mention the issues of whirlwinds and perhaps other disasters on land. Sadly if I were to implement this concept it would create more issues. $\endgroup$ Jun 15 at 16:35
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    $\begingroup$ Have you read why the Wright brothers chose the Outer Banks of North Carolina to fly their gliders and the first powered Flyer? The wind: steady and strong. A 30 mph wind is a blessing for a hang glider, as long as it's from the right direction -- and if hang gliders can fly, eventually someone will power one. $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Jun 16 at 18:26
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    $\begingroup$ If the wind is good for sailing it will also probably be good for flying. The problem with this sort of answer is that it creates all sorts of downstream consequences that you probably don't want to have to deal with. $\endgroup$
    – eps
    Jun 16 at 20:31
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One of the most reliable ways to limit a particular avenue of science and technology is religion.

In our own world, this has happened several times, for periods of anywhere from decades to a couple centuries, in Europe (worth noting that some other religions have promoted science; this is not intended as a statement about religions in general).

If, in your fantasy world, flight by anything without feathers (possibly including bats or leftover pterosaurs) is irrevocably associated with some evil aspect (what Christians might call demonic -- as with medieval illustrations from our own history showing angels with feathered wings, but dragons and demons with leathery bat-like ones), the very idea of so much as experimenting with flight without putting actual feathers on your wings might be enough to get you tried and executed by whatever barbaric method is in favor at the time (and we all know what happened to Icarus).

The thing with religion is that it's often structured to prevent logical assessment of its own tenets ("If you have faith, you will simply accept that angels can dance on the head of a pin, without questioning how large the pin or how small the angel."), so a restrictive paradigm can last far beyond the point where it becomes provably false, simply by forbidding the reasoning that could be used for that proof.

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  • $\begingroup$ Maybe this idea could be implemented in some way, but not entirely. The religions in my world aren't religions per-se, deities are a very real thing that make their presence known every now and then. Then again, the most advanced nation doesn't have such a restrictive view as the rest of the world, that's one of the main reasons why they're so far ahead technologically. My main problem isn't stopping an inventor from saying: "I want to make a flying contraption" but rather preventing an entire nation from saying: "Flight would give us superiority over all others, let's start brainstorming." $\endgroup$ Jun 15 at 14:34
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    $\begingroup$ This is a terrible reading of early modern/medieval European history. $\endgroup$ Jun 15 at 16:37
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    $\begingroup$ Religion is a horrible way to prevent people doing things, religions change constantly, and won't extend of the whole world. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jun 15 at 17:23
  • $\begingroup$ The religion in question for this case only needs to be a or the major one in the more advanced nation -- and likely only needs to hold firm on tenets for a couple centuries to support the situation in the question. We have half a dozen religions with that kind of staying power in our timeline. $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Jun 15 at 17:25
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When in your timeline the Montgolfier brothers give their first public demonstration in front of the dignitaries, something bad happens. The balloon crashes and starts a fire which kills, together with the two pioneers, also a good number of the dignitaries attending the demonstration, including some church representative.

This was the last straw of a series of incidents which caused several damages among the peaceful farmers and artisans of the province "blessed" by the presence of the pair, and it turned quickly into a backslash against these attempts of violating the rules set up by the holy book and the good philosophers of the past that stated that elements move toward their natural place, and thus humans cannot rise and fly challenging the will of the greater being.

This won't fully prevent discovery of flight, but it will likely delay it for quite some time.

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  • $\begingroup$ Yeah I read about a similar response in a similar question, something about preventing certain industrial advances indefinitely. Probably the most notable disaster of such magnitude is the Hindenburg crash, before that point the Germans actually planned on building large zeppelins that could act like mass troop transports and even early aircraft carriers, but when that thing burned down pretty much the entire zeppelin development burned down with it. The only thing that came out of that development more than a century later are the blimps. Sounds plausible, but unlikely to work in my world. $\endgroup$ Jun 15 at 16:25
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    $\begingroup$ that will stop one country from developing them, who will then be conquered by all the ones that do. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jun 15 at 16:59
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Your world could lack accessible sources of aluminum, or may never have discovered how to refine it in an efficient and economically viable way.

Aluminum was the critical material that gave airplanes the strength required to scale up while staying light enough to remain airborne. Without aluminum, you're restricted to the wood or cloth-over-wooden-frame aircraft from the earliest days of aviation. These designs do not scale well. You can still have prop-driven craft that seat two or three people, but you won't support the loads required to build jet-powered craft, cargo planes, troop transports, or long-range, high-capacity bombers.

Airplanes can still exist (it's hard to forbid them completely without other side effects), but they won't be the trump card that you're worried about. Your army and navy will still be the primary instruments of war. The airplanes that do exist will fly at lower speeds and altitudes, and your casters should be able to dispatch them without much difficulty. Anyone who can control the elements can knock such a plane out of the sky by moving the air around their wings and control surfaces, rendering the craft uncontrollable due to turbulence or reducing their lift to the point that they cannot stay airborne.

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  • $\begingroup$ Take a look at the Vicker's Wellington $\endgroup$
    – CGCampbell
    Jun 16 at 11:09
  • $\begingroup$ I'm definitely going to be restricting the industrial development so there are no light materials available, along with engines that don't have such a high power-to-weight output. $\endgroup$ Jun 18 at 13:59
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Birds! High altitudes are colonised by bird swarms. Earthers and fliers don't ordimarily overlap as birds here prey only on other birds and sleep on magically floating wings even in their sleep.

And they are implacably ferociously territorial, with carbide toothed beaks, and 6m wingspans. The family groups have large hunting territories (as large carnivores like lion prides do), and roam a lot, and yeah, they defend their territories against unknowns (but tolerate those with nearby territories, unlike earthly animals). Worse, they are social so they summon others they know, to support them in ostracising unknown fliers of any kind.... because an intruder of one, will usually signify intrusion to others, its to all their benefit to mob unknown fliers. And as they usually fly high, they see a long way, across their territories.

Now think social-structured pterodactyl crossed with adamantium wolverine........

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  • $\begingroup$ Large predators tend to prey on even larger prey, though. Or on a lot of smaller prey. - So either they are rare, or there is a really awful lot of prey around, either concentrated in small quantities of huge prey or large quantities of smaller prey. - And what does the prey feed off? $\endgroup$ Jun 16 at 10:12
  • $\begingroup$ I have to be honest, I loved this idea for the dramatic world scenarios it allows, and I would gladly handwave the ecological food chain analysis for that purpose. But I don't think we will need to (too much, anyway!). Let's have a planet with as much aerial life and ecology, as earth does on land. The skies are teeming with all kinds of fliers! There are ambush hunters, echo locators, colour camouflagers a là squid/cuttlefish, there is a ton of aerial life with the equivalent of chlorophyll wings, that lives off the pure sunlight above the cloud layers and don't need to eat at all, ... $\endgroup$
    – Stilez
    Jun 16 at 15:10
  • $\begingroup$ ... There are fliers that are small enough to live off water and nutrients in that planets clouds (which conveniently aren't just water vapour!), and... there are social as well as solitary carnivores at the apex. And if you think pteradactyl mounteverestus adamantii is big, you need to wait for their aerial equivalent of whale sharks to float by, on hydrogen bladders that are filled by electrolysis of water using sunlight chlorophyll and electric cells, with huge maws sweeping in the midges and tiny air life. That's a metabolism where size definitely pays off..... $\endgroup$
    – Stilez
    Jun 16 at 15:11
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They have not invented the internal combustion engine yet.

They're still using steam engines, which would be very plausible for a civilization with technology equivalent to what we had during the industrial revolution.

For powered flight, you need to have a good power-to-weight ratio, which is very hard to achieve with steam engines. The Wright brothers used an internal combustion engine for their first flight, and they might not have been able to take off with the added weight of a steam engine that could produce the same power.

In our world, steam-powered airplanes have been attempted but they were unusual devices because of the difficulty in producing a powerplant with a high enough power-to-weight ratio to be practical. Only one airplane design listed in the linked article has confirmed flights, and it was built 3 decades after the Wright brothers took their first flight. I'm not sure that that plane could have been successfully designed and built without the knowledge accumulated from 3 decades of flight with internal combustion engines.

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How about you just cripple flight to make it impractical but still allow people to pursue it if they want to?

Like what if you have an unstable atmospheric magnetic field which begins to pick up strength a few metres above the surface?

If there is a stupidly powerful and unpredictable magnetic field then it could potentially make any kind of powered flight very dangerous by physically interfering with the metal components of the airfraft, pitching the machine around and occasionally slamming it into the ground or the side of a mountain, shaking it to pieces, as well as prohibiting the use of any kind of aerial sensor instruments like altimeters compasses fuel gagues yaw sensors etc. Birds would be unaffected, as would unpowered balloons and wooden gliders.

To avoid interfering with tall buildings and mountains and surface compasses, perhaps for some reason this magnetic field is like an inductive magnet and only picks up strength when a conductive object is moving through it at a height of above so-and-so metres? This might also allow for the use of extremely low speed aircraft, maybe zeppelins. If you want to deny powered zeppelins just make the field less speed dependent with increased distance from the surface. Alternatively to all that maybe the field doesn't affect any object in contact with the surface.

It wouldn't make flight completely impossible, but it could make it prohibtively dangerous or limit flight to a certain speed. It's even possible that advanced flight has been conceived of & developed, maybe even supersonic aircraft were developed in the belief that faster aircraft would be less susceptible to the problem - but every aircraft project was then subsequently abandoned after the death of everyone (or nearly everyone) who dared attempt to pilot it. Perhaps thousands of aircraft were actually built in anticipation of a flight revolution that never happened and are now sitting in various scrapyards and fields rusting away and being used as sheds. Maybe once upon a time some had even been used in combat, but they were so dangerous that they were more likely to crash and kill the ground crew who had just fuelled it than get anywhere near the enemy meaning the actual benefit to using one in battle would be less than zero; the sight of an aircraft being prepared for launch would cause men to flee in terror as they try to get away from the crash zone.

So aircraft would be an obsolete technogy pursued only by raving lunatics and madmen. Climbing into one would result in almost guaranteed death.

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It has been mathematically (but incorrectly) "proven" to be impossible

In Heinleinn's The Number of the Beast, the characters visit a parallel universe where a famous physicist "proved" that heavier-than-air flight was impossible. Because of that, no one ever even tried to build aircraft. That world did have dirigibles. You can have a similar historical development that results in educated craftsmen dismissing powered flight as "Impossible! Everyone knows that!"

A cool feature of this explanation is that powered flight would still be physically possible, allowing for a plot twist: the protagonist escapes via an "impossible" rocket or the brilliant young general develops an "impossible" secret weapon...

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  • $\begingroup$ "Because of that, no one ever even tried to build aircraft". Many people stubbornly tried to build perpetual motion machine despite that its creation is impossible according to currently known laws of physics. I don't see why the same can't happen in the world with such incorrect proof. 2)Also, what prevents people from double checking the proof and consequently finding errors? $\endgroup$
    – user161005
    Jul 3 at 10:49
  • $\begingroup$ @user161005 All good points. Regarding perpetual motion, no serious scientists try to build them. I guess I'll cop out and appeal to expertise here: If it's good enough for Heinleinn, it's good enough for me $\endgroup$ Jul 6 at 19:04
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Here be dragons

Parts of the world are populated by dragons (obviously magical, nothing that large could possibly fly otherwise), they're big, ugly, scaly and dangerously aggressive, and they jealously guard their air-space.

There are also Wyverns, Wyverns aren't birds, they're more like small dragons (2 - 3 meters in length), except feathered. They're quite beautiful and much less agressive.

Wyverns - unlike the solitary dragons - live in family units. Humans and Wyverns have learned to co-exist - more or less - peacfully living near each other.

Wyverns also jealously guard their airspace, especially against dragons. There are no townships that don't encourage a family of Wyverns to stay near by, because those towns are rarely or ever attacked by dragons.

The upshot of this is anything larger than a 2 meter kite that takes to the skies will quickly be ripped to shreds by Wyverns.

Everyone knows this, so the concept of trying to fly anything bigger just doesn't occur to people. The concept of actually getting into a flying contraption is ludicrous, sure you'd be ripped apart by our lovely wyverns!

Why would you offend them by trying to take their place and fly? You'd be better off building your house at the bottom of the river and pretending to be a fish!


Even if the Fire Nation sorry
Even if the industrialized nation has managed to wipe out it's dragons, and gets over the cultural taboo against flying, any airships they fly over other nations will be attacked by the dragons and wyverns that live there.

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  • $\begingroup$ Dragons are the top aerial threat indeed, but in my world they're extinct. They were the original casters and the apex predators but, as soon as humankind realized they could gain casting abilities by devouring their flesh and blood, they gradually hunted every single one of them down. $\endgroup$ Jun 18 at 6:47
  • $\begingroup$ You can still have the cultural taboo against flying, as Wyverns are kept for good luck. Anyhoo, it was just an idea :) $\endgroup$ Jun 18 at 11:20
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It's very hot and humid

This one depends on the world you live in. But the lower the air density the faster a plane must travel for take off. If you don't want your people to live on a tropical forest, then make an atmosphere layer with those characteristics at a low altitude.

I don't know what scientific shenanigans would have to happen so that you could have an atmosphere layer like that, but there might have been a magic disaster in the past that changed the way the atmosphere works.

Well, at some point you might have such low pressure that planes just can't go over altitude enough to be viable (either that or has to use too many resources).

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    $\begingroup$ High altitude is DEFINITELY something I do not want to work with in this world of mine, so this suggestion also helps me resolve that issue too, thanks. But even with that taken into account, if an airplane was developed and it would be limited to just flying 100m above the ground, it could still revolutionize the world... So, although this idea helps in the worldbuilding, it doesn't resolve this particular question. $\endgroup$ Jun 15 at 16:32
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    $\begingroup$ lower air density also reduces engine power. Especially in the early days of powered flight, weaker combustion engines would have put a stop on the attempt. That is definitely a route you could go. Early aircraft (and naturally aspired piston engines today) cannot go over a certain altitude, mostly because of the engine. That altitude varies with temperature: hotter means lower. The engine just doesn't create enough power. Adding a turbocharger or compressor helps, but that's a different story. $\endgroup$
    – Burki
    Jun 16 at 10:01
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Wizards can shoot your airplanes out of the sky

I don't know much about your world, but if a lot of magic-users have powers that resemble anti-aircraft guns, that would drastically reduce the usage of flight in wars because you could just have an (or several) anti-aircraft caster on your ship to knock the plane(s) out of the sky.

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  • $\begingroup$ Yes that definitely works in favor of mitigating airpower :) $\endgroup$ Jun 18 at 13:57
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you didn't really mention if your world had to be above-ground so I think an effective way to prevent flight would be to place your world underground where flight becomes less practical as a means for traversing large distances. This would mean you could still have technology that supports flight, but essentially nobody would actually develop flying machines because they would be completely impractical within the underground tunnels.

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  • $\begingroup$ I do intend to construct underground civilizations and creatures, but for the time-being all of the story is occurring above ground... $\endgroup$ Jun 17 at 16:15
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Looking in the wrong direction

It may be falsly theorized (or actually "proven", being common knowledge) that birds and other flying animals use a low-level type of anti-gravity magic. This type of magic seems to be fairly unique since no human/sentient race has ever developped/acquired these powers.

Hence, the inhabitants of your world simply acknowledge it to be an unobtainable goal, comparable to Faster Than Light travel in our world. Breaking this boundary would imply a significant breakthrough outside of the current understanding of physics/magic.

Researchers who are still interested in studying this phenomenon from a non-magic point of view may be looked at as pseudo-scientists (like, say, astrology in our world). Their findings never seem to gain track with their peers and funding is therefore lacking. Even the "serious" scientists who occasionally stumble upon a result indicating a feasible new approach (such as certain shapes generating lift) might dismiss the results as erroneous and falling within the margin of error.

They might for example think that lift is being produced by the little amount of water molecules present in the air (boats float, so there has to be lift from somewhere, right?). However, it has been observed that there's less water higher up in the air, so there's not enough lift. All flight assisted by "waterbenders" has currently failed because they can't seem to get the precise amount of water needed right...

The two camps (alternative anti-grav magic vs. waterbending) might even dominate the discussion, therefore pushing away any other suggestions.

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You haven't said if your world have gods or something similar, but maybe the wind god doesn't approve of humans since they were made by the earth god and once they go more than 30m airbone it makes their lungs collapse and everyone who tried it drops dead.

Or you could have something similar but with dragons that are always airborne and attack anything bigger than an eagle.

Another good option would be an ultra high density mana layer that makes humans unable to go higher than 40m off the ground by magic means.

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There are no birds or other winged animals

We tend to take what we see and duplicate it. We had the wings of birds to study to learn how they fly and apply that knowledge to technology. The dream of soaring like a bird took thousands of years and advancements before someone was successful at it. But it was seeing the bird fly that gave many, many people the idea to try and learn how to soar like a bird over the years. That doesn't mean someone won't someday figure it out, it just means the inspiration and example to achieve flight isn't there to encourage it.

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  • $\begingroup$ Because flight has independently evolved at least four times (insects, pterosaurs, birds & bats) and probably more, that suggests that it is very likely to evolve on other worlds. No flying animals is thus not a very plausible answer. $\endgroup$ Jun 16 at 18:06
  • $\begingroup$ @JackAidley The story has magic in it...so we can't just assume evolution on Earth applies. Gravity and air density play a role, slightly different gravity and air density could be enough to reduce the likelihood of flying animals (not counting insects as the flying mechanics are different and would not apply toward developing high speed flight) $\endgroup$
    – rtaft
    Jun 16 at 18:39
  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps, but "magic did it" can also simply be the answer if you want to go that route. The Asker specified "feasible": this isn't feasible in a world with anything resembling natural biology. $\endgroup$ Jun 16 at 21:13
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The air is highly turbulent. The bigger your flying thing the more of a problem this becomes for it. Things like pollen and insects are pretty much unaffected. Small birds can exist.

However, by the time you're up to something human sized turbulence becomes a very big deal--to make it strong enough to fly makes it too heavy for a practical flying craft.

Note that this does not remove artillery from the picture but it limits it's effective range because accuracy will stink.

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Thin Air

It's not our world. It has a much lower atmospheric pressure. The Wright brothers would never have got off the ground, if they had to start at (say) 40,000ft equivalent.

The creatures of this world have evolved to breathe air at low pressure. Mostly, they have a better oxygen-transport molecule than haemoglobin. (Here on Earth, birds have a better variant of haemoglobin, and can fly at 37,000 ft where humans would pass out and die. But they need denser air to take off. A problem if you really want birds? Maybe cliff-jumpers? ).

This does have implications towards the rest of the mundane technology of this world. Sails won't work as well. Or perhaps, if wind velocities are higher because the air is thin, they'll work better. In which case the landscapes and buildings will be different.

Railways and Warships will be using steam, or internal combustion engines with extreme superchargers to get dense enough air. Gas turbines are a few years away (and jet engines and possible aircraft, a few more, although lift-off velocities of (say) 250mph+ will be a challenge needing very long and very smooth runways. But that's for your fictional characters' future )

Throw-away idea. This world might have mountains with effective vacuum at their peaks, and fairly separate air circulation regimes separated by mountain chains. I'll leave the implications to you.

NB if you want accuracy instead of handwavium, you'll need to look a lot harder at the scaling laws compared to my imaginings here.

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High Gravity World

This might make a lot of other things complicated for you / need paying attention to a lot, but if its important enough to you (to have a coherent reason there is no flight), I guess it could be worth it to you.

I'm not too great on the physics side, but as far as I'm aware, there is no linear relation between gravity and density of atmosphere (as implied by a different answer) - other factors can have effects, eg the availabilty of water, strength of solar wind, etc. . But to the point: Higher gravity makes flight harder - eg for spaceflight, earth is actually pretty close to the limit of it being impossible with conventional fuel technology (just think of the ratio of payloads to fuel / total weight: you only get about 1% useful stuff of total start weight into orbit!). For winged flight, eg twice the gravity means that you'd need twice the lift from wings as you do on Earth - but just doubling wing size is not going to work, cause that gives you a bunch of extra weight (ie requiring even more lift!).

What this would boil down to is not that (winged) flight is impossible, but that you would expect it to be developed a good deal later in technological evolution (because it requires more lightweight construction methods / higher powered engines to be viable). Which - I think - matches what you're looking for.

P.S. I'm a bit surprised that noone else has answered with the idea of higher gravity - did all the SciFi nerds (like me :P) go running hearing its a fantasy background ?

P.P.S. Just as a side note, I think both the "just don't explain" as well as the "magic is/stays close to the ground" are pretty solid options you could go for!

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  • $\begingroup$ Increasing the gravity also puts quite a lot of hurdles not only for flight, but also for pretty much everything and everyone else, that's why it's highly unlikely to be applied. $\endgroup$ Jun 18 at 14:01
  • $\begingroup$ True - but only to an extent. Smithing is not more difficult. Drawing carts is hardly very different. $\endgroup$
    – Sean CJ
    Jun 18 at 14:19
  • $\begingroup$ For humans - I was thinking and wondering whether you'd expect a different anatomy (eg more staunch as assumed in many SciFi settings) - but given that many people today also weigh in at 150 kg (and can still walk), for double gravity you don't really need to assume different body shapes... $\endgroup$
    – Sean CJ
    Jun 18 at 14:29
  • $\begingroup$ No anatomy change whatsoever, humans remain relatively the same except some of them have casting abilities. Also, being a caster doesn't make you exceptional, yes you will stand out from the crowd and you will be slightly more capable, but if you're sliced by an axe or shot by an arrow you will bleed and you will die just the same. $\endgroup$ Jun 18 at 14:31
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Your on a Volcanically active world

When the volcano i can't pronounce erupted is spewed enough ash into at the atmosphere that air travel was suspended around an area much larger than the Volcano.

Now in your World there are lots of Volcano's (perhaps low activity ones) constantly spewing out ash. Not enough to cause issue with breathing but enough that whenever anyone tries to get an airplane to work the engines are quickly destroyed. So yes you can fly for 5-10 minutes but then your engine is clogged. If you don't have the technology to realize whats happening you may assume that's just what happens when some one tries to fly and thus powered flight is "impossible".

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Gravity is lower

People often assume, wrongly, that lower gravity makes flight easier but in reality the opposite is true. Higher gravity makes the atmosphere denser and that makes flying much easier than it is in the lower denser atmosphere under lower gravity.

While a simple balloon might be possible, heavier-than-air becomes much more difficult and even living things will be less able to fly with the largest birds being considerably smaller. Technology might eventually allow it, but industrial era tech isn't going to get there.

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    $\begingroup$ higher gravity for higher density is not advantageous, the buoyancy gained does not offset the greater weight. if you want higher density you just give the world more atmosphere. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jun 17 at 2:47
  • $\begingroup$ low gravity would also make rockets much more viable $\endgroup$
    – jk.
    Jun 17 at 12:09

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