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Centenary of the Advisory Committee for Aeronautics

The Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (ACA) was formed by the then War Minister, Lord Haldane with the cooperation of the distinguished physicist, Lord Rayleigh, who became its President, and Dr Richard Glazebrook, Director of the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), who became its chairman. The work for which the Committee was formed was defined in an announcement made by the Prime Minister to the House of Commons on May 5th, 1909. As part of a general reorganization of British "aerial navigation" activities and "with a view to securing that the highest scientific talent shall he brought to bear on the problems which will have to be solved", the ACA was tasked to advise it on aeronautical policy and to supervise aeronautical research being undertaken at the NPL. The committee's role was purely advisory and its goal was to bring some cohesion to the investigations being carried out by several bodies including the Admiralty, the War Office and the NPL.

Richard Glazebrook (2nd from L)
and Lord Rayleigh (R) in 1909

Amongst its twelve members were no less than seven Fellows of the Royal Society, so its scientific credentials were never in doubt. The ACA set about its task energetically and in its first year of operation held ten meetings, including visits to the Balloon Factory at Farnborough and the NPL. It also identified a general programme of experimental work, comprising 37 topics, covering Airships, Aeroplanes and Meteorology.

According to J L Nayler, the long-time Secretary of the organization, "it should not be thought that the ACA was a very serious collection of old men sitting round a table – the membership was relatively young and Mervyn O’Gorman from the Royal Aircraft Factory and Frederick Lanchester, the aviation pioneer, were always looking to see the funny side of things". Although, Nayler adds, for the most part they were a very serious body, especially when Lord Rayleigh was present!

Lord Haldane

Bushy House - Home of the NPL and Administrative Headquarters of the ACA

Mervyn O'Gorman

One of the earliest successes of the research programme was in the field of aircraft stability where Leonard Bairstow carried out pioneering experiments of “derivatives” in the NPL wind tunnel and moreover was able to offer practical help to aircraft designers. Edward Busk, a young Cambridge mathematician working at the Royal Aircraft Factory and designer of the BE2, was one such. Bairstow's research was highly regarded in Britain and abroad and on the outbreak of WWI in1914 was amongst the work that was immediately classified. When the US entered the war in 1917, NACA, the equivalent US committee modeled on ACA, requested access to UK technical reports, which was agreed except for one subject - stability.

Frederick Lanchester

BE2 in 1913

Leonard Bairstow

The 1920s

After the war, the ACA was reconstituted as the Aeronautical Research Committee (ARC), reporting to the Minister of Aviation (at the time, Winston Churchill), rather than the Prime Minister and concentrating principally on aeronautical research and education. For the first five years of its new constitution, the ARC had the benefit of representation from SBAC and RAeS but following a reorganization of the Air Ministry, its terms of reference were amended so that its membership was solely governed by scientific standing rather than representation of defined interests.

During the 1920s and early 30s, the ARC was instrumental in directing research to address a number of problems which had emerged during the war, including flutter (via a series of pioneering Reports and Monographs by Duncan and Frazer of NPL), spinning (by Gates and others at RAE) and scale effects. Bairstow, who had by this time been made FRS, took a curious stance on scale effects, insisting that tests on small-scale models in wind tunnels were inherently more accurate than full-scale flight measurements. Following a considerable amount of effort, involving international trials across different facilities, the matter was finally resolved in 1924 but not in Bairstow's favour.

The Air Ministry's decision to support the UK entries into the Schneider Trophy Races in 1927 led directly to the ARC's involvement in testing a number of the designs and to a much better understanding of interference effects between one part of an aircraft and another. The Duplex wind tunnel at NPL was also called upon to run day and night for a period to resolve an instability in the UK entry. The plane won the prize, however, and then went on to retain it in 1929 and 1931.

Winston Churchill

William Duncan


Model of Supermarine S.6 Seaplane as tested at NPL


Barry Gates

The Tizard Era and beyond

In 1933, after 24 years in the Chair, Glazebrook was replaced by the immediately energetic Henry Tizard, who is perhaps best known for chairing the Scientific Committee for Air Defence (usually known as the Tizard Committee) which amongst other things instigated research into radar. At the ARC, one of Tizard's prime concerns was to improve the performance of reactive interceptor fighters and in particular to develop engines with the potential for very high power for their size and weight. The two-stroke and turbojet both met these criteria and Tizard encouraged the development of both technologies. It was by no means obvious which one would prove to be successful until the early 1940s, when the turbojet emerged as the more promising contender. The Rolls-Royce Crecy two-stroke engine had many advanced features but never got further than the test bench and is now largely forgotten.

Henry Tizard

After the war, the ARC changed again from a Committee of Government to become the Aeronautical Research Council, with a majority of non-official members, a greater authority to review the progress of aeronautical research and to make recommendations on research which it considered desirable to initiate. The ARC then continued to play an important role in UK aeronautical research under a succession of able and influential Chairmen until the reforming zeal of the Thatcher Government proved to much for it to bear and it was abolished along with a whole host of QUANGOs in 1979.

Margaret Thatcher



There is no doubt that the great years of the ARC were under the long serving Chairmen, Glazebrook (1909-1933) and Tizard (1933-43). During the immediate post-war period the ARC remained a force to be reckoned with but its influence over research priorities gradually diminished and its demise perhaps provided an early indication of the changes in Government involvement in Aerospace research, which led to the disappearance of RAE, a little over a decade later.

The tangible fruits of the ACA/ARC were more than 5000 reports issued in the R&M and CP series, the majority of which were available for sale from His Majesty's Stationery Office. It used to be said by many aeronautical researchers that the price put on their work by the ARC was probably the only reliable measure of its value!

Annual Technical Reports were provided to the Government until the outbreak of World War II and two further summary reports were published in 1948 and 1954 covering wartime and immediate post-war progress. To celebrate the 100th Anniverary, these reports (without the detailed Technical Supplements) have been digitized and made freely accessible in searchable pdf format on this website to join the complete set of CPs and over 1000 R&Ms already available.

Geoff Butler, Farnborough Air Sciences Trust, April 2009


Selected Bibliography

Collar A R, "Tizard and the Aeronautical Research Committee", J RAeS, 71, 529, 1967.

Hashimoto T, "The Wind Tunnel and the Emergence of Aeronautical Research in Britain",
Atmospheric Flight in the Twentieth Century, ed Galison & Roland, Kluwer, 2000.

Nahum A, "Two-stroke or Turbine? The Aeronautical Research Committee and British Aero Engine Development in World War II", Technology and Culture, 38, 312, 1997.

Nayler J L, "Early Days of British Aeronautical Research", J RAeS, 72, 1045, 1968.

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