By Don Berliner

Source: Official UFO Page 32, Vol. 1, No. 7, April 1976

When the final history of private UFO investigations is written, the place of honor as the leading membership organization at one time will undoubtedly go to the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena, or NICAP.

For most of its existence it has been the best known of all the non-governmental groups, the largest and the most influential. Located in the heart of Washington, D.C., and long headed by the dynamic Donald Keyhoe, it was the obvious source of UFO news for the immense Washington press corps, and thus was in the spotlight whenever the UFOs were flying.

Backed by a staff which grew as large as nine full-time employees, NICAP operated through a world­wide network o£ investigative sub­committees and scientific advisers. To communicate with a membership which reached a high of 14,000 in the late 1960s, it published the periodic "UFO Investigator" and a long list of special booklets and reports; its 1964 "UFO Evidence" report remains a classic among the serious literature on the subject.

It all began in the late summer of 1956, when a group of Washington­area UFO enthusiasts decided to develop their informal discussion group into something more specific and permanent. With an inventor named T. Townsend Brown leading the way, NICAP was incorporated in October of 1956. Brown envisioned plush offices, a sophisticated Washington-style operation and a quick solution to the mystery.

It was a great idea, but the hoped for finances never materialized, and by the end of 1956 NICAP found itself in the midst of the first of many financial crises. The Board of Governors met in the middle of January, 1957, eased Brown and his cohorts out, and installed Keyhoe as the new director, with almost unlimited powers.

The impact was considerable. Keyhoe was one of the most prominent and effective magazine writers of the day, with a large and loyal following. His books-"Flying Saucers Are Real" (1950), "Flying Saucers From Outer Space" (1953) and "The Flying Saucer Conspiracy" (1955) - had placed him alone at the top of the heap. In the previous half-decade, he had done more than any other single individual to attract interest in UFOs and to counter Air Force claims that there was nothing to them.

Within hours of Keyhoe's appointment, things began to happen. NICAP Board Chairman D.S. Fahrney (Rear Adm., USN, Ret.) spoke out publicly. As a former head of the Navy's guided missile program, Fahrney was listened to when he said: "There are objects coming into our atmosphere at very high speeds. No agency in this country or Russia is able to duplicate at this time the speeds and accelerations which radar and observers indicate these flying objects are able to achieve."

This put NICAP into the headlines, and Keyhoe's extensive personal contacts within the government and the press, plus his talent for keeping things stirred up, served to get the organization under way with considerable impetus. One early staff member's unfortunate preoccupation with UFO extremists and contactees totally at odds with the policies of the Board and Keyhoe kept things off balance for a while. But the June, 1958 hiring of Tulane University honors graduate Richard Hall marked the end of such problems and the beginning of NICAP's scientific approach to the situation.

Late in 1958, Hall began to organize the subcommittee program, recruiting groups of technically trained volunteers and forming field investigative units able to reach the scene of the more interesting UFO sightings and interview witnesses, collect evidence and begin to sort it out before the trail could grow cold.

While it wasn't known at the time, the U.S. Air Force had already taken note of NICAP, expressing concern over this challenge to its supremacy in UFO investigating. A report by Col. L.T. Glaser to the head of the Air Technical Intelligence Center stated: "...many of the private and organized UFO investigators, apparently in competition with the Air Force, appear on the scene well equipped to conduct a field investigation. Invariably they have Geiger counters, magnetometers and various sampling equipment with them and they use it. Not that this means much, but it is impressive to the uninitiated, and particularly so when the Air Force investigator later appears on the scene armed with nothing but a notebook and pencil. Some of the UFO organizations, such as NICAP, well know the deficiencies of the Air Force Program and take advantage of every opportunity to place us in a defensive position."

Had Keyhoe and Hall been aware of the Air Force's sensitivity to their actions, they would undoubtedly have done even more to pressure the government. Even so, one of the main thrusts of NICAP's activity for much of its existence was to press for an end to secrecy and censorship. Scores of times NICAP pointed out examples of Air Force inaccuracies, contradictions and failures.

But that was far from the total plan of operation for this organization which occupied a fourth-floor loft in a converted townhouse near once fashionable Dupont Circle. With steadily expanding sources of information, NICAP saw its files of UFO sighting reports grow to impressive proportions, soon rivaling those of the Air Force. And as the public became less and less enchanted with government policies of denying any possibility of UFO reality, it reported more and more of its solid cases to private agencies.

In the early 1960s NICAP worked hard for Congressional hearings into the alleged mishandling of the Air Force's Project Blue Book UFO investigation. More than once, action seemed just around the corner, only to fade away at the last moment. The mysterious maneuverings of Capitol Hill understandably proved too much for the still young UFO agency, and so another way had to be found to get the story of unidentified flying objects to the public.

With finances a constant pinch, and a staff small enough nor meetings to be held in a phone booth, NICAP nevertheless set out to do battle with the United States Air Force. Richard Hall, running the tiny office with the help of Mrs. Leliah Day and the occasional presence of Keyhoe, began work on the first thorough study of UFO reports ever attempted.

Poring over more than 5,000 cases in the files, Hall and a few volunteer aides sorted out the best: those involving more than one witness, those describing an object rather than a vague light in the night sky, those with confirming physical evidence, and those most difficult to explain as normal occurrences. From more than 5,000 cases in the beginning, Hall selected about 750 as the basis for a multi-pronged analysis.

By early 1964 the "UFO Evidence" report was complete. More than 200,000 words had been written about the nature of UFOs: who sees them, what they look like, how they behave, when they appear and where, and what it all might mean. In contrast to most of what had been written up to that time (and since), Hall stuck to the facts, carefully labeling any speculation as exactly that. The idea was to lay it all out for people to see, and let them make up their own minds.

In July, 1964 thousands of copies were ready. They were distributed to members of Congress, to the press, to prominent scientists and engineers and to other opinion makers. The atmosphere had been electric for several months - ever since a minor sighting wave had been touched off by the April landing of a UFO and its two occupants in New Mexico. The air was full of questions, but not answers, and thus "UFO Evidence" could hardly have appeared at a better time.

NICAP's fortunes began to rise as the information-packed report became known. The press in particular began to treat the Connecticut Ave. offices (by now down on the third floor in larger and more businesslike surroundings) as a fine source of interesting stories. The membership began to soar, and so did the bank balance.

And this meant that the staff would have to keep pace. Two people couldn't handle the mushrooming pile of correspondence, the monthly newsletter, the steady stream of phone calls, the growing subcommittee network, the in pouring of sightings, and the visits from scientific VIPs, full­fledged weirdos and everything in between. By early 1965 a third staff member had been added and more were on the way.

In the summer of 1965, the fourth major American sighting was was in full swing. It had been eight years since the last one, and there had been serious doubts expressed about the UFOs ever returning in force. But in July and August they did. And they brought with them, to NICAP's offices, a swarm of reporters and scores of calls from radio stations wanting to do live and taped interviews. Success was actually happening after Hall and the others had all but given up hope.

By late 1965 there were five full-time people on the staff, and one part-time. Before they had time to really recover from the 1965 sighting wave, another one hit in the spring of 1966 and NICAP's business boomed. During one period in April, the entire crew worked from 9 a.m. to midnight for 13 consecutive days in an attempt to cope with the unprecedented work­load. Incoming mail averaged 1,000 pieces per day, and there was barely time to rough-sort it. The phones rang continually. The author vividly recalls one chilly morning when he was interviewed by three different radio stations before getting a chance to hang up his coat! Exciting!

As public pressure for a serious, unbiased study of UFOs swelled - with NICAP's help - Congress and the Air Force took note. In the fall of 1966 the University of Colorado announced it was accepting a USAF contract to investigate the long-term mystery, and NICAP offered all its facilities, information and experience toward what looked like the most positive step yet taken in the 20 years of UFOs.

Other matters were relegated to lower priority as the staff and a Xerox machine worked almost full-time to transfer the best material in NICAP's files to Dr. Condon's group at Colorado. Hundreds of case files were copied and sent to Boulder,, and top staff members met with University project leaders to discuss the complex subject being tackled. This was what Keyhoe, Hall & Co. had been waiting for all those discouraging years. And while there were some reservations about a government-funded study, it still seemed worth a maximum effort.

Early in 1967, NICAP reached its peak. Membership was around the 14,000 mark, and the staff consisted of nine full-time employees- considerably more than the USAF's Project Blue Book had. But by September, things were starting to turn sour, and NICAP was so disenchanted by the unconvincingly denied reports of Dr. Condon's anti-UFO bias that it quietly reduced its cooperation. Still, hope was held out that Condon and project administrator Robert Low would correct what looked like a serious lack of objectivity.

At about the same time - and completely unconnected with the friction with the University of Colorado ­ veteran Assistant Director Richard Hall left the staff, creating a void that was never effectively filled. His place was taken by Gordon Lore, a staff member for two years and co-author of a book about pre-1947 UFO activity.

Half a year later, in April of 1968, the break with the University of Colorado was made complete, and was announced as part of a major article in the Saturday Evening Post by John Fuller about the evidence which was piling up and pointing to a put-up job by the Air Force. The great hope for a serious, scientific investigation had collapsed, and with it had gone the morale of most of the serious investigators.

It was at about this time that NICAP scored a coup on the Air Force. With the help of a Congressional committee, a series of long-classified reports by the Air Force's Projects Grudge and Blue Book were pried loose from the Pentagon and published. They effectively documented NICAP claims of military secrecy and censorship.

But as it became increasingly apparent that Dr. Condon's final report would support Air Force claims that UFOs were of no importance and that the investigation should be dropped, public interest dissolved. NICAP's membership rolls shrank, the bank balance dwindled and operations had to be cut back. In the summer of 1969, with the membership already down below 8,000, there was a 50 percent cut in staff.

Long-needed fiscal policy changes were instituted in late 1969, shortly before the Colorado report was issued and provided the Air Force with an excuse to close Project Blue Book. But it was several years too late to keep the organization functioning at the level it should have been. As a result of years of too little concern for budgetary and personnel matters, things had gotten to such a state that there had to be a reshuffling of top people. Donald Keyhoe was allowed to resign as director, and Gordon Lore as assistant director.

In 1970, professional administrator John Acuff took over the reins of NICAP, though former deputy Stuart Nixon remained the functioning head briefly. Reforms were instituted, the offices were moved to save money and to make way for a subway station about to be built on the old site. The staff went down to just one person full-time and two part-time. Eventually the offices were moved to the suburbs where the rent was even lower and then the staff was again cut.

The era of the influential private UFO investigative agency appeared to be nearing its end. After the long period of intense activity in the mid-1960s, things got very quiet. The closing of the Air Force investigation seemed to have killed public interest.

The die-hards hung on, convinced that sightings would pick up again. But they weren't enough to keep NICAP going at a level which would enable it to effectively influence public opinion. Without reports of sightings in the newspapers, on radio and on TV, people forgot about UFOs and about those who were still trying to solve the mystery. First, NICAP's marginally successful subcommittees closed down, and then even the most active ones found themselves unable to maintain interest. There were few sightings to investigate, and there was little support for or interest in their activities. No one seemed to give a damn.

The "UFO Investigator" continued publication - it even began a regular monthly schedule for the first time ­ but there wasn't much to report. All through the early 1970's things were so quiet that old-timers were reminded of the early 1960s drought.

In 1973, after six long, quiet years, the weird "kidnapping" of two fishermen in Pascagoula, Mississippi, brought UFOs back into the public's eye as brightly as ever. But NICAP's operations had shrunk so much that it was not able to play the vital role it had so many times in the past.

Besides, times had apparently changed for good. It was becoming clear that if any answers were to be found, it would take highly trained scientists rather than well-meaning amateurs, no matter how dedicated. It was the sighting wave of 1973 that stimulated the formation of Dr. Hynek's Center for UFO Studies, with its pointedly non-public structure.

This is no condemnation of private groups like NICAP, for without them UFO investigation would be nowhere. It was they who collected reports that otherwise would have been lost forever, and did so much to counter the Air Force's thoroughly unscientific behavior. When the USAF refused to release more than vague summaries to a press and public eager for details, NICAP and the other under-financed groups of citizens moved into the gap and gave out the information. Had there been no NICAP, it is obvious that the Gallup Poll of 1973 would not have shown a majority of Americans convinced that UFOs are real.

So much for NICAP's proud past; what of its present and future? Under Executive Director John Acuff, current operations are concentrating on research in investigation and analysis of UFO sighting reports. NICAP disseminates its information to its 5,000 members and to the general public. Field work is handled by about 90 investigators - most with degrees in technical fields - and their chosen assistants. A strict selection process has resulted in the rejection of about 75 percent of those applying for investigator status. Backing up the field people are some 30 Ph.D. consultants and advisers.

NICAP's current position on the nature of UFOs is (as it has long been) on the cautious side. "We don't know what they are," said Acuff. "But there is scientific proof that something is being seen in the atmosphere that are not conventional objects or known phenomena. Further research is needed to determine the nature of the objects ... but one theory worth researching is the possibility that some of them are extraterrestrial craft."

What needs to be done in the coming years? Acuff sees three main areas of concern: Funding is needed to enable the various organizations to carry out their programs, there must be a coordinated effort among the organizations, and there must be involvement of the scientific/academic governmental community to a greater degree.

NICAP's own plans zero in on investigation and analysis. A long delayed computer study - planned out and ready to start as soon as the money can be found - will make possible a more thorough analysis of the existing data than has yet been done. But Acuff hastens to state that he does not expect to find the final answers in a computer study, since he thinks any big clues should have been evident from the less sophisticated studies that have already been done of NICAP's 20,000 reports. But the computer will hopefully lead to guidelines for concentrating the limited available time and brainpower on the most important areas.

NICAP plans to continue to upgrade its field investigatory force because Acuff feels it is vital to be able to work with the soundest possible data. Currently, NICAP is receiving about 40 to 50 reports per month, 80 percent of them from the U.S., where 90 percent of its members live. An increase in foreign operations is planned.

Director Acuff sees NICAP's relations with other UFO organizations such as APRO, MUFON and the Center for UFO Studies as much better than they were five years ago, when personal, petty jealousies were a more important factor than they are now. While there are no formal ties with these or other groups, there is a regular exchange of data.

What the future holds for this 19-year-old operation - still the largest private agency in its field - no one can possibly know. It really depends on the public, on how highly it rates UFO investigation and how convinced it is that an outfit like NICAP can still perform a useful function.