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In my setting, I have created a technologically innovative faction which seeks to utilise various past technologies, namely, aircraft.

For context, the setting is a post apocalypse type setting following the dimensional collision of Earth and a fantasy world, which fried most electronics and resulted in the collapse of modern civilisation. It has been 98 years since the event, and various societies and groups, changed as they are, are beginning to return.

This brings us to the faction, a joint coalition of humans and gnolls which are defined by their utilisation of technology on a wide scale, in comparison to some of their more medieval neighbors. Of particular note is their attempt to establish an aviation program. This is facilitated by their possession of an invaluable old world treasure: A vintage B-25 bomber, an aircraft renowned for its durability, ease of maintenance, and, most importantly, forgiving flight characteristics. Due to it being a collector's item pre-collapse, it was maintained to a near-new standard, and was stored in a hangar in ideal conditions until its discovery. Accompanying it were various manuals detailing the maintenance, engineering specifications, and instructions for flight.

They have also acquired several high-quality examples of common, simple to maintain aircraft, namely the Cessna 172 and Piper Cub, and numerous spare parts for them.

I chose propeller aircraft due to the belief that, despite their older status, they will be infinitely easier for a industrialising society to restore to a working status than modern jet turbine aircrafts, which are also are largely disabled due to the scrambling of complex electronics.

Whilst I feel it unnecessary to deliver too many details, I will add what may help with the question:

  • They actively seek out information and technology which will increase their standing, and have placed a bounty on aviation-based information such as manuals and textbooks. They are not working from scratch, and have no intention whatsoever of doing so.

  • They have engineers, machinists and mechanics, albeit trained to an inferior quality than modern equivalents, and are actively seeking out and training experienced individuals.

  • There are several individuals trained as pilots, though mostly in theory, with the exception of two who have achieved flight in Piper Cubs.

  • They have industrialised to the extent of having mining operations, and are capable of producing iron and steel in moderate quantities, machines such as small arms, having reclaimed various engineering apparatus such as lathes and milling machines, and have a working, small scale foundry.

  • Population of roughly 6,000 EDIT: As one commenter pointed out, this may be an unrealistic population number, and thus may change

  • They are aware of the existence of gasoline and its importance to the operation of engines, and have refined it in small quantities. They currently lack a large oil refinery/drilling operation, at least to the point of consistently producing aviation gasoline, but are attempting to create one, and will likely do so.

  • Lack of trucks or other motor vehicles, due to the preceding point.

Essentially, my question can be boiled down to three points:

  • Would aircraft be airworthy following 98 years of storage, regardless of their pre-collapse condition?

  • How realistic is a post-apocalyptic, industrialising society maintaining the logistical and technological conditions necessary for (limited) aviation?

  • How valid are my choices of aircraft? Under the factors underlined, would the faction be capable of maintaining larger, more complex aircraft, or am I severely overestimating the ease in achieving flight again?

NOTE: I feel I should specify that in regards to the B-25, they do not intend to constantly use it, it is more of a propaganda piece/flagship, meant to show the "technological mastery" effect the faction is trying to project. I had an interesting idea that they may frequently repaint it, so that it seems they have many more than they actually do. They do, however, need it to fly it in combat at least once, so that it is known that the thing exists. The majority of their air force would consist of less resource-intensive craft, like salvaged bush planes, and thanks to your very informative and helpful comments, various wood and cloth WW1-era biplanes, as well as several zeppelin-type airships.

Edit: Thanks to @schmuddi for the suggested edit for the grammar and formatting, it was very good.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Sep 20, 2022 at 3:31
  • $\begingroup$ Are you specifically looking for Airplanes or would other types of aircraft work as well? Airships specifically would be easier to build and besides flying speed, weather susceptibility, and their large volume, they would likely be superior to propeller-driven aircraft across the board (despite filling them with hydrogen). $\endgroup$
    – Dragongeek
    Sep 20, 2022 at 10:40
  • $\begingroup$ Airships are definitely possible. I was envisioning the B-25 as a flagship of sorts, a sort of rarely-used display of power. The rest of their air force would be far less complex, consisting of a variety of simple wooden planes, and most likely, airships. I imagine they would work rather well as an airborne cargo ship, at a fraction of the resources. Apparently Amazon is making a giant airborne warehouse blimp that shoots out drones to deliver packages. $\endgroup$
    – ebinbenis
    Sep 20, 2022 at 12:54

5 Answers 5

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"Population of roughly 6,000" means, at best, Roman-era technology

... With a frosting of scavenged modern metals and glass.

A hundred years have passed since modern civilization fell. Metals are still available for the taking, and so is glass, but most plastics are already unusable by this time.

The most severe constraint posed by the question is the tiny population. Six thousand people. Six thousand people, under wondrously good leadership, might sustain a 2nd century CE Roman-era technological level. Most likely, 4th century BCE classical Athens-era technological level. Anything more advanced is a golden legend about their unfallen ancestors.

Let's break down the six thousand and see what they can do.

  • We begin by noting that they don't have anything like post-19th century medicine. In particular, no antibiotics and no vaccines. Which means a horrendous childhood mortality, implying that in order to avoid going extinct they will have to have lots of children. Very optimistically:

    • Out of the 6000, children under 10 years of age . . . . . 1100.
      Out of the 6000, children under 15 years of age . . . . . 1700.
  • Remain about 4300 adults of all ages, 15 to 60. (In such primitive conditions, people are considerd fully adult at 15.)

  • Out of those 4300, about 1500 are women of child-bearing age, who are busy making children, educating them, washing and sewing, spinning thread and weaving cloth etc. Their work is absolutely essential for the survival of the village, and for the perpetuation of civilization, but doesn't help with maintaining technology.

    Remain about 2700 men of all ages 15 to 60 and women past 40.

  • Out of those 2700 people, at least 2000 will be fully occupied with growing food and tending sheep and cattle. This is a very optimistic assumption; normally, out of a population of 6000 with modern but pre-WW1 technology, one would expect about 4000 people to work in agriculture; with pre-modern technology, even worse.

    Remain about 700 people to do technology is the broadest sense.

  • Out of those 700, most will be occupied with the basic technologies of all times: wood-working (wood is by far the most useful material in pre-modern societies), pottery and ceramics is general, tanning leather, making charcoal or digging for stone coal, copper and iron smelting, iron-working.

    Let's continue in the super-optimistic mood and say that with 400 people you can cover all the basics. Remain 300 people to be occupied with nice-to-have technology.

  • Those 300 people, 5% of the total population of 6000, will have to do everything which came after the end of the 3rd millennium before the common era:

    • Making paper and ink, as a fundamental requirement to maintain a literate civilization.

    • Teaching reading, riting and rithmetic to chidren, teaching the basics of physics and chemistry to adults, doing all the experimental work to re-invent basic dyes, and hot-metal typography, and glass-making and so-on.

    • Keeping records, keeping the peace, ruling and leading the village and other such aristocratic duties.

  • Overall, out of the 6000, with the most optimistic assumptions, you might have maybe 100 people busying themselves with an attempt to re-create the lofty technology of their ancestors. Will they tackle aviation first? Oh no.

    They will first address how to make steel in quantity, electric power and electric light, and steam engines. Then stainless steel, and crude petrol engines, and maybe some synthetic dyes, some simple sulfa drugs, and aluminium; or, given that they live on a post-apocalyptic Earth and metals are aplenty ready-smelted, at least how work with scavenged steel and aluminium.

If they really really want to fly . . .

It is infinitely easier to make a small simple wood-and-fabric airplane in the style they had the 1910s, WW1-era, than to restore a modern airplane. Those post-apocalyptic people have no rubber and no hope to make any, no mineral oil, no high-octane gasoline. The wheel tyres, the belts, the hoses, the gaskets in the fossil aircraft are gone and cannot be replaced; and all the hydraulic and lubricant fluids are gone and cannot be replaced.

Build a new aircraft instead.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Sep 19, 2022 at 16:50
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    $\begingroup$ Hmm... If the people can read whatever the language was in their area before the collapse, then I'd say that some parts of this answer are overly pessimistic. There will be a huge information loss from the loss of computers, but if one could just visit a local university library, things like calculus, physics, chemistry, etc. could be maintained. If one could find non-CNC machines that are still in decent workable order, that will also help quite a lot, at least if you can find enough lubricant still lying around. Early modern equipment could be reproduced, including even generators. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Sep 19, 2022 at 21:43
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    $\begingroup$ That said, I'd completely agree that maintaining WWII-era aircraft, let alone anything after that, is out of the question. The aerodynamics are not so hard to figure out, but getting the materials to maintain the engines in working order is another matter entirely. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Sep 19, 2022 at 21:45
  • $\begingroup$ @reirab They are actively and very urgently seeking out all possible information sources. They also are seeking out, and have a sizeable collection of non-digital lathes, milling machines and other suitable engineering facilities. $\endgroup$
    – ebinbenis
    Sep 19, 2022 at 23:15
  • $\begingroup$ @reirab I chose the B-25 because, as multi-engine bomber aircraft go, it is generally regarded as being unbelievably simple and easy to maintain, barring some tricky bits like the Norden Bombsight. I intended for much of their quantities of oil to be acquired through plastic pyrolysis, wherein plastic is converted back into oil. Also, they have had acquisiton of the B-25 for roughly 10 years as of the plot beginning, during which time I think its not impossible to imagine they'd be able to acquire tricky materials and make anything else, albeit to an inferior standard. $\endgroup$
    – ebinbenis
    Sep 19, 2022 at 23:19
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I'm no expert on aircraft engines, but car engines have "soft parts", belts and hoses, sealants and gaskets, hydraulic control lines and such, made of more organic materials (rubber, plastic or other synthetics), that age and weaken much faster than metal parts.

Also, tires for take off and landing.

In 98 years (and decades of storage as museum items), they may look okay (or not) but would burst under the strain of full use.

I would imagine your group got a lesson in this with the Piper Cubs.

If you've lost most of your infrastructure, you can't just pick this stuff up with your groceries; you have to figure out how to manufacture it again.

It seems like this is addressable, but something you should consider before trying to fire up these engines. Even if they run, without proper coolant and circulation, they will burn themselves out in no time. Cracked blocks and ruined parts.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for the answer. Its sort of what I was going for, that is, there would be a few wrecked planes throughout the world that showed that their understanding of airplane mechanics was an... evolving affair. $\endgroup$
    – ebinbenis
    Sep 18, 2022 at 10:13
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    $\begingroup$ You can't pick that stuff up with your groceries today.... $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Sep 18, 2022 at 21:22
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    $\begingroup$ Nit pick: The great majority of piston aircraft engines are in fact air cooled, they don't need coolant! They still do need oil, though. $\endgroup$
    – Fake Name
    Sep 19, 2022 at 0:44
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    $\begingroup$ +1 mostly for the first paragraph. Oil and fuel will also be major problems. Good luck having a workable petrochemical industry with 6,000 total population. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Sep 19, 2022 at 21:27
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  1. Will the original aircraft be airworthy? No. All the rubber and other organics will be dryrotted. Any ferrous metals will be rusted to a degree. Piper Cubs and B-25s are advanced aircraft. It really takes a 1940s level of tech to maintain them, and abundant oil and gasoline to run them.

  2. Can this society build and fly aircraft? Yes.

  3. Your choices are not valid at all because they rely upon aluminum for weight savings and structural support.

If they want to fly, then WWI-era canvas and wood aircraft will do nicely. They can be reliable and stable.

The question is, can your society make a gasoline engine light enough to power such a plane? they should start small - single-seat biplane kites (pretty much) and then work their way through the tech levels. If you cannot make a Wright Flyer, then you cannot make a Sopwith Camel, a Gotha bomber. or a Jenny.

In the beginning of the age of powered flight, there were numerous small teams working independently to develop the first airplane. They watched each other and stole ideas as appropriate. The Wright Brothers just happened to get there first. Had they waited a month, it might have been Curtis. Who knows. So you'll need a thriving if small set of enthusiasts to make this happen organically.

Question - would a chainsaw motor support an ultralight?

I don't know. But the Wright Flyer (circa 1903) had a 12 horsepower engine. A top-notch WW1 fighter (circa 1918) had perhaps 110 horsepower engine. Anywhere between these numbers will work, with the higher end allow for quite useful aircraft.

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  • $\begingroup$ Would you imagine a chainsaw engine, or something to that effect, is enough to support an ultra-light aircraft? $\endgroup$
    – ebinbenis
    Sep 19, 2022 at 23:43
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    $\begingroup$ Answer updated, @ebinbenis $\endgroup$
    – Tony Ennis
    Sep 20, 2022 at 3:05
  • $\begingroup$ A very quick search shows gasoline chainsaw engines producing 3.5 hp. Use four of these together and you can power the 1903 Flyer. $\endgroup$ Dec 9, 2022 at 17:00
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Hot Air Balloons.

If a couple of French dudes could pull them off in the 18th Century, your post-apocalyptic weirdos shouldn't have too many problems.

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Gasoline might be very difficult to come by unless they are somewhere near a surviving petroleum seep & even then they would need to build a fractionating still.

As an alternative, consider methanol, which the ancient Egyptians produced by pyrolysis of wood. If your protagonists are going to maintain any sort of technological civilisation they'll presumably have pottery kilns, so should be able to produce methanol as modification of this technology. My reading is that some kind of airtight chamber for the organic matter to be pyrolised would be required then the gasses released would need to be cooled sufficiently for the methanol to condense. Same principle as a fractionating still but a lot less precise so easier to make in a low tech environment.

Pure methanol has an octane rating around 110 octane which should be able to power a primitive (Think WWI) engine powerful enough to get a light aircraft off the ground.

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  • $\begingroup$ They have set a bounty for the locations of oil seeps, and have achieved success with plastic pyrolysis, as well as superb luck in finding a truck full of barreled crude oil, which, if stored correctly does not expire. I haven't heard about the use of methanol as a fuel. Most fuel nowadays is partly ethanol, and this applies to avgas also. Perhaps it could be combined to account for a lack of actual petroleum? Good, high quality answer. $\endgroup$
    – ebinbenis
    Sep 20, 2022 at 10:11

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