How to look for records of... Research and development in the Royal Air Force

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

How many are online?

  • None

1. Why use this guide?

You can find many records relating to aeronautical research at The National Archives, reflecting the activities of many different research establishments and committees.

This guide will tell you how to start your research, and which records series are the most important.

This guide only covers records held by The National Archives, but there are several collections in other archives, particularly the Royal Air Force Museum.

2. Searching for records: general tips

Start by doing a keyword search within Discovery, our catalogue.

Refine your search by date and by collection: most of the relevant records are in the Air Ministry (AIR) or Ministry of Aviation (AVIA) departments.

Useful search terms include:

  • ‘aircraft research’
  • specific aircraft types (for example ‘Barracuda II’)
  • names of relevant organisations (for example ‘Royal Aircraft Establishment’)

You can also filter your search results by subject, such as research, weapons or manufacturing.

As aeronautical committees and organisations were frequently reorganised, try searching for their alternative names.

3. Air Ministry (1897-1944)

The Air Historical Branch papers, Series I (AIR 1) are the most important set of records for the early history (1897-1919) of aeronautics. Use the indexes in the reading rooms at The National Archives to identify relevant records.

The Air Ministry was responsible for developing new aircraft and equipment between the First and Second World Wars, and for civil aviation until 1944.

You can find relevant Air Ministry material in:

  • registered files in AIR 2
  • Chief of the Air Staff Papers in AIR 8
  • unregistered papers in AIR 20

Use AIR 2 to find papers about the development of civil aviation. These files also include some post-1945 material.

4. Ministry of Aircraft Production (1940-1945)

The Ministry of Aircraft Production (MAP) took over responsibility for the procurement of supplies and for the various Air Ministry research establishments.

The main series of records relating to the MAP is AVIA 15. Also consult:

  • scientific and technical monographs in AVIA 44
  • private office papers in AVIA 9
  • unregistered papers in AVIA 10

5. Royal Aircraft Establishment (1918-1988)

Previously called the Balloon Equipment Store, the Royal Aircraft Factory designed and built many types of aircraft and aircraft engines until 1916.

However, this work was transferred to industry in 1916 and the factory focused on research and development. It was renamed the Royal Aircraft Establishment in 1918.

You can find:

6. Research establishments, committees and councils

Many aeronautical research organisations developed during the 20th century. For example, you can find records of:

Browse the general records relating to aircraft research in our catalogue, or search for a particular organisation by name.

You can also find records of the Aeronautical Research Council (created in 1945) in DSIR 22-24.

7. British aircraft

Many of the Royal Air Force records held in The National Archives are concerned with the operation and development of aircraft.

There is material on almost every aircraft flown by British air forces until 1946, but there are few detailed plans of aircraft.

Probably the most important source of material on aircraft is the collection of Air Publications (AIR 10). These date from 1913 onwards and include:

  • pilots’ notes
  • rigging diagrams
  • handbooks
  • maintenance instructions

Other useful records include:

  • Ministry of Aircraft Production files in AVIA 15 – contain a lot of information about Second World War aircraft
  • Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment and Marine Aeroplane Experimental Establishment files (see above) – include photographs and diagrams
  • SUPP 9/1 – contains specifications and photographs of every type of aircraft used by the RAF during the Second World War
  • type biographies in AVIA 46
  • Bomber, Coastal and Fighter Commands papers in AIR 14-16 contain documents on the development and use of aircraft
  • monthly reports of the Directorate of Research in AIR 60 – many of these contain diagrams of aircraft
  • files on aircraft research in AVIA 54 and AVIA 65

7. Foreign aircraft

There is some material on foreign, especially German, aircraft in AIR 1 for 1914-1918 and a little in AIR 10 (1918-1945).

AIR 40 contains:

  • details about most air forces in the world during the 1930s and the war years
  • information about almost all the aircraft, including jets and helicopters, used by non-Allied air forces during the Second World War
  • diagrams, photographs and details of examinations carried out by the Allies on enemy aircraft which crashed in the UK – unfortunately these reports are not complete
  • captured drawings of the German V-rockets

You can find detailed specifications and photographs of aircraft used by the USAAF during the Second World War in SUPP 9/2.

8. Airships

Look in AIR 1/728-30 for papers about the development of the airship before 1914. There are also papers on First World War airships in AIR 1 and AIR 2 described under Code 6/1 in the class list.

Look in AIR 11 for useful information about the construction and design of airships in the inter-war period. Drawings are in AIR 12. Also try AIR 5 and AIR 20.

All surviving airship logbooks are in AIR 3, including the logbooks for the R 100 and R 101.

You can find photographs of airship sheds in AIR 59.

9. Further reading

Use our library catalogue to find a recommended book list.

The books are all available in The National Archives’ reference library. You may also be able to find them in a local library. You can buy from a wide range of history titles in our shop.