I understand that different types of engines use different types of fuel, and as the description of the [jet] tag says, turboprops and jet engines use different types of fuel.

So if – like in the works of fiction The Final Countdown and 1632 – modern aircraft did find themselves in 1940, which aircraft would you readily be able to find fuel for? And which would you have to (re)develop the fuel for?

Let's take the following aircraft as examples:

  • AH-64 Apache gunship
  • Airbus EC 135 P2e
  • AgustaWestland AW101
  • Boeing 747 (whatever variant is most prolific today)
  • Lockheed C-130 Hercules
  • General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon
  • Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II
  • Bombardier Dash 8

My assumption is that even the turboprops will not be able to use the aviation fuel available.

Which aircraft could have been fuelled "locally" first? And will any fly with 1940 aviation fuel, maybe with an additive?

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    $\begingroup$ "turboprops and Jet engines use different types of fuel" No, turboprops have turbine engines just like jets and use the same fuel (typically Jet A or Jet A-1). Piston engines use different fuel... $\endgroup$
    – Bianfable
    Commented May 24, 2019 at 8:27
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    $\begingroup$ Turbine engines run on almost anything that can burn, jet fuel is basically kerosene with some additives. Yes that was available in WWII, probably easier to get than aviation fuel. Related question: aviation.stackexchange.com/q/13042/21091 $\endgroup$
    – Koyovis
    Commented May 24, 2019 at 8:48
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    $\begingroup$ @Koyovis, the engines do (and the same cores are often run on natural gas for power generation), but the fuel pumps rely on lubricating properties of the fuel, which gasoline lacks. Easy to get as it is a large fraction of crude oil and was in less demand back then. $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Commented May 24, 2019 at 18:24
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    $\begingroup$ Note fuel is probably the easiest of the problems since your logistics tail for weapons and spare parts and the tools to install everything is somewhat lacking. If you don't happen to have a Nimitz around, I bet you are not going to do very many sorties. Also note that starting your jet may require special external power, but that could probably be jiggered up in an afternoon. Absent a single existential threat, the best thing to do would be to study the heck out of it to jumpstart aerospace by a few decades. $\endgroup$ Commented May 24, 2019 at 20:50
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    $\begingroup$ @SethRobertson - Aerospace, electrical engineering, radar, computer science.... $\endgroup$
    – Steve V.
    Commented May 25, 2019 at 1:20

3 Answers 3


Jet fuel is mostly kerosene, with some aromatic hydrocarbons mixed in for stability, temperature range and the like. You could probably run military jets on pure kerosene if they were magically transported back to WWII, but you wouldn't have to as it would have been possible to make reasonable jet fuel. The Jet-A standard was made in the 50s, and there were no major differences in the fractions available from WWII.

Before it was an engine fuel kerosene was primarily used for heating and lighting, and it was widely used across the world for that purpose in WWII. It still is in some places around the world where electricity isn't available. The aromatics in jet fuel aren't anything special, so it would have been entirely possible to make a jet fuel.

You could go farther back than WWII and still run a jet on raw kerosene as the modern process to distill it from petroleum was invented in the 1850s.

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    $\begingroup$ The aromatics also help in not eating away the tank sealants. Should not be an issue if short-term. $\endgroup$
    – user14897
    Commented May 24, 2019 at 15:54
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    $\begingroup$ It still is in some places around the world where electricity isn't available and in some places where electricity is available, like Japan, where kerosene space heaters are really common. $\endgroup$
    – briantist
    Commented May 24, 2019 at 19:26
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    $\begingroup$ They have kerosene in gas station pumps around where I live in the US. If you buy kerosene here, you are getting Jet A minus some additives and the quality control paperwork. The demand isn't enough for refineries and pipelines to carry a separate product. $\endgroup$
    – user71659
    Commented May 24, 2019 at 21:25
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    $\begingroup$ Where I'm from Jet-A fuel from the bottom of the barrel (not used in case there are some contaminants) are sold as household kerosene. I've been told the primary difference between jet fuel and regular kerosene is that jet fuel is finely filtered to avoid any contaminants that could clog the fuel system $\endgroup$
    – slebetman
    Commented May 25, 2019 at 1:33
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    $\begingroup$ Diesel will also work just fine in a jet engine (and vice versa); it's basically slightly-longer-chain kerosene. The main difference in practical use is its higher freezing point, but that can be worked with - and diesel, unlike kerosene, was already used in vast quantities by militaries to fuel trucks and tanks and such. $\endgroup$
    – Vikki
    Commented Sep 7, 2019 at 0:37

Hydrocarbon cuts that can be used for jet fuel were plentiful during WWII; it was gasoline, especially high octane avgas, that was in short supply.

Greatly over-simplified: the first stage in a refinery is the pipe still which boils the oil, then condenses it into different fractions according to temperature ranges. Typically a large fraction is "gas-oil" which contains kerosene type oils a.k.a. jet fuel. Some lower octane gasoline is also collected. To make gasoline, the gas-oil goes to the cat cracker, makes some gasoline. Then, some fractions from the pipe still and the cat cracker go to the reformer (expensive in operation because it uses high pressure hydrogen).

The reformer makes the high octane aromatics needed for avgas. No aromatics are needed in jet fuel.

This is the big picture without desalters, alkylation, vacuum pipe stills, cokers, desulfurizers, isomerization, etc.

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    $\begingroup$ Because of the critical need for high octane aromatics , the government gave top priority to building reformers. American Oil probably built the most ( Yorktown VA and Texas City, TX). After the war there was not as much need for high octane , cars had about 7:1 compression. Instead of shutting down the reformers, American offered a high octane unleaded gasoline while all others used tetraethyl lead. Later, Standard Oil- Indiana bought American and started the name "Amoco". Again , because they had the repormers ,Amoco continued to offer unleaded premium ( in the east and south east ). $\endgroup$ Commented May 25, 2019 at 18:03

I doubt that could be done. Even though jet fuel is mostly kerosene, advancements in fuel production technology have focused on lowering the freezing temperature of the fuel, among other things. You could probably get the engine started on fuel made back then, but it would be difficult to keep the engine going at the altitudes aircraft like the F-16 can fly.

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    $\begingroup$ "You'd have to stay under 10k feet" and "it can't be done" are vastly different things, though. $\endgroup$
    – ceejayoz
    Commented May 24, 2019 at 19:57
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    $\begingroup$ If you've managed to get an F-16 back to WWII, you don't really need to be at the optimal mission altitude to destroy everyone else in the air. $\endgroup$
    – ceejayoz
    Commented May 24, 2019 at 21:45
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    $\begingroup$ @ceejayoz ammunition might be more of a challenge - the 20mm cannon was loaded with 511 rounds, and making more would be difficult. $\endgroup$
    – Criggie
    Commented May 24, 2019 at 22:11
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    $\begingroup$ @JuanJimenez Good thing the question didn't ask about the optimal mission profile for an F-16 then? $\endgroup$ Commented May 25, 2019 at 1:47
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    $\begingroup$ It takes time for fuel to freeze to gelling temperature - more time than the mission lasts? 1-K grade kerosene freezes at around −40 °C. I'm downvoting. $\endgroup$
    – Koyovis
    Commented May 27, 2019 at 3:57

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