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

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

How many are online?

  • None

1. Why use this guide?

Use this guide for advice on records of research and development in the Royal Air Force and in the civil aviation industry now held by The National Archives. You can find out what kinds of records we hold and how to search for them. As with all of our records, these are records created by central government departments, including, in this case, branches of the military. There are tens of thousands of such records and they reflect the activities of many different research establishments and committees, including the:

  • Air Ministry, 1918-1964
  • Air Registration Board, 1937-1973
  • Air Transport Licensing Board, 1960-1972
  • Ministry of Aircraft Production, 1940-1945
  • Ministry of Aviation, 1959-1967
  • Ministry of Aviation Supply, 1970-1971
  • Ministry of Civil Aviation, 1945-1953
  • Ministry of Supply, 1939-1959
  • Ministry of Supply and Aircraft Production, 1945-1946
  • Ministry of Technology, 1964-1970
  • Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation, 1953-1959

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

2. How to use this guide and get a search for records started

A search for documents at The National Archives usually begins in our online catalogue. The following sections of this guide provide links to key record series that you can search within our catalogue, helping you to target your searches more precisely. By clicking on the series links (for example, AVIA 15) you will arrive on the respective ‘series description’ pages which provide information on the arrangement of the records and sometimes some of the historical context in which they were created. From the series description page you can search across the series, using keywords and/or dates/years. Useful keywords for these records include:

  • names of aircraft (for example ‘Barracuda II’)
  • names of aeronautical organisations (for example ‘Royal Aircraft Establishment’) – bear in mind that these were frequently reorganised so use previous and successor names too where appropriate
  • ‘aircraft research’
  • ‘prototype’
  • ‘drawings’
  • ‘specifications’

Use the advanced catalogue search to target the records of one or more entire departments. The departments from which most of the records covered in this guide are drawn were the Air Ministry and the Ministry of Aviation. To target the records of a department you need its department reference, which is always a letter code. The code for the Air Ministry is AIR and for the Ministry of Aviation it is AVIA. Read the AIR catalogue description and the AVIA catalogue description for overviews of the records of these departments.

Catalogue search results provide short descriptions of our records and a document reference for each one – you will need the document reference to see the record itself. The records covered in this guide are not available to view online so to see them you will have to either visit us in Kew or order copies. Bear in mind that a search in our catalogue from the catalogue homepage will also search for records in other archives around the country – keep your eye on the ‘Held by’ field to establish whether the records are here or elsewhere.

3. Air Ministry, 1918-1964, and predecessors

The records of the Air Ministry include records inherited from previous, related government organisations. The Air Historical Branch papers, Series I in series AIR 1 are the most important set of records for the early history of aeronautics, approximately 1897-1919. 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.

Some of the key Air Ministry record series for research and development are:

  • 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

8. 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.

9. 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.

10. 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.