In May 1909 the government appointed an Advisory Committee for Aeronautics to advise it on aeronautical policy and to supervise research then being undertaken into the problems of flight. These investigations, which were still in their pioneering days, were being carried out by several bodies, among them the service departments and the National Physical Laboratory. It was the responsibility of the committee to bring some cohesion to their work, but it had no executive functions and could not initiate research.
The committee's role was purely advisory and it could study, with a view to proposing practical solutions, only those problems which had arisen from outside research and which were referred to it. A department was set up at the National Physical Laboratory, under the laboratory's administration, to assist the committee in dealing with such problems.
During its early years the committee was responsible to the Prime Minister as Chairman of the Committee of Imperial Defence, but from 1918, although it remained independent of departmental control, it reported to and advised whichever minister was currently responsible for governmental research into aeronautics. From 1918 until 1940 the committee reported to the Secretary of State for Air, and subsequently to the ministers of Aircraft Production (1940 to 1945), Supply (1945 to 1959), Aviation (1959 to 1966) and Technology (1966 to 1970). Later it advised the Minister for Defence Procurement, Ministry of Defence, and Minister for Aerospace, Department of Industry.
The committee was reconstituted three times: in 1920, 1925 and 1945. On the first occasion, following the redistribution of responsibility for government research between the Air Ministry and the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, it was renamed the Aeronautical Research Committee, and given wider terms of reference. In addition, its composition, hitherto confined to scientists and representatives of the service departments, was altered to include representatives of the aircraft industry and of other outside interests.
However, although the committee now had important executive functions, its influence waned during the next few years because, whereas it was concerned with basic research, the Air Ministry was more interested in development work. When in 1925 a Directorate of Scientific Research was set up at the Air Ministry, one of the immediate consequences was a further reorganisation of the committee, which reverted to its original advisory role concerned solely with scientific research.
The 1945 terms of reference confirmed the committee, or council as it now became, in this capacity, at the same time giving it greater authority to review the progress of aeronautical research generally and to make recommendations on research which it considered desirable to initiate.
Sub-committees and panels formed the basis of the committee's internal organisation from its earliest days. Mention is first made of the sub-committees in the 1910-1911 Report. The early sub-committees were of an ad hoc nature, though a permanent Aerodynamics Sub-committee was founded in 1917-1918. By 1925 the system was fully developed, there being 13 sub-committees ranging in size from 3 to 12 or more members. Each sub-committee was presided over by a member of the main committee and included, as appropriate, representatives of the governmental bodies interested in aeronautical research.
The principal sub-committees each developed a number of panels, much of the work of the Aerodynamics Sub-committee, for example, being done by such panels. Subsequent developments in the system were dictated by changes in lines of research, sub-committees being created or dissolved as avenues of investigation were opened up or closed.
In 1945, when the committee was renamed the Aeronautical Research Council, sub-committees became committees and the panels sub-committees. At the same time the Minister of Aircraft Production announced that the council would consist of 14 members of whom 8, including the chairman, would be non-official members.
Following the report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Aircraft Industry, 1964-1965, the council's membership was increased to 21 of whom 12, including the chairman, were independent members, drawn mainly from the universities and the aircraft industry.
In addition to the investigations conducted at the National Physical Laboratory on its behalf, the committee was concerned with the work on aeronautics undertaken at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, often on the recommendation of the committee itself, in the universities and by firms.