National Investigations Committee On Aerial Phenomena
9 - 11 minute read
The National Investigations Committee On Aerial Phenomena (or NICAP) was a civilian unidentified flying object research group active in the United States from the 1950s to the 1980s.
Though NICAP was a non-profit organization, the group faced collapse many times in its existence, due in no small part to financial ineptitude among the group’s directors. Only for a few years in the 1960s, when the organization's membership spiked dramatically, was NICAP on firm financial ground.
Despite these internal troubles, NICAP probably had the most visibility of any civilian American UFO group, and arguably had the most mainstream respectability; Jerome Clark writes that "for many middle-class Americans and others interested in UFOs but repelled by ufology’s fringe aspects, it served as a sober forum for UFO reporting, inquiry, investigation, and speculation". (Clark, 412) NICAP advocated transparent scientific investigation of UFO sightings and was skeptical of "contactee" tales involving meetings with space visitors, the alien abduction phenomenon, and the like. The presence of several prominent military officials as members of NICAP brought a further measure of respectability for many observers.
Throughout its existence, NICAP argued that there was an organized governmental cover up of UFO evidence. NICAP also pushed for governmental hearings regarding UFOs, to at best limited and occasional success.
Though any UFO-related group attracts a number of uncritical enthusiasts along with a small percentage of cranks, astronomer J. Allen Hynek cited NICAP and APRO as the two best civilian UFO groups of their time, comprised largely of sober, serious-minded people capable of valuable contributions to the subject. (Hynek, 1972)
Until the mid-1960s, NICAP gave little attention to close encounters of the third kind (where animated beings are purportedly sighted in relation to a UFO). However, longtime NICAP member Richard H. Hall related privately that this position was "tactical and not doctrinaire. (Druffel, 93) In other words, NICAP did not necessarily dismiss occupant reports out of hand but elected to focus on other aspects of the UFO phenomenon which would be perceived by mainstream observers as less outlandish. The attention given to the contactees of the 1950s (who typically claimed ongoing contact with benevolent "Space Brothers") was almost certainly a factor in NICAP’s reluctance to study UFO occupant reports too closely. But with the 1964 Lonnie Zamora UFO encounter — regarded by researchers as one of the most reliable UFO occupant reports — NICAP loosened its restrictions on studying UFO occupant reports.
NICAP was founded on October 24, 1956, by physicist Thomas Townsend Brown. The board of governors included several prominent men, including Donald Keyhoe, Maj USMC (Ret.), and former chief of the Navy’s guided missile program RADM Delmer S. Fahrney USN (Ret.).
By early January 1957, however, Brown had proved so financially inept that the board asked him to step down. Fahrney replaced him, then convened a press conference on January 16, 1957 where he announced that UFOs were under intelligent control, but that they were of neither American nor Soviet origin. The press conference received major attention, doubtless aided by Fahrney’s stature.
In April 1957, Fahrney resigned from NICAP, citing personal issues. It was later disclosed that his wife was seriously ill.1 Fahney was bothered by the whispers and ridicule his UFO interests generated among many of his peers in the military.
Keyhoe became NICAP’s director. He established a monthly newsletter, The U.F.O. Investigator. Another prominent figure joined NICAP’s board of governors: Keyhoe's Naval Academy classmate VADM Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter, USN (Ret.). He had been Director of Central Intelligence and first head of the Central Intelligence Agency. Another important name on the letterhead was that of Gen. Albert Coady Wedemeyer USA (Ret.).2
The organization had chapters and local associates scattered throughout the United States. Many of their members were amateurs, but a considerable percentage were professionals, including journalists], military personnel, scientists and medical doctors. One of NICAP’s prime goals was thorough field investigations of UFO reports. They would eventually compile a significant number of case files and field investigations which Clark characterises as "often first rate" (Clark, 413).
By 1958, NICAP had grown to over 5000 members. Keyhoe’s financial skills were only slightly better than Brown’s, and NICAP hobbled along for several more years, facing collapse on several occasions. For most of his tenure as director, Keyhoe sent irregular letters to NICAP's members, warning of the organization's imminent collapse, and soliciting funds to keep NICAP afloat. According to Jerome Clark (see sources below), Keyhoe often paid for much of NICAP's operating expenses himself.
The 1960s found much of the American public keenly interested in UFOs, and NICAP’s membership crested at 14,000. This influx of members greatly improved the group’s finances.
Hillenkoetter left the board in 1962.3
In 1964, NICAP published The UFO Evidence, edited by Richard H. Hall, a summary of hundreds of unexplained reports studied by NICAP investigators through 1963. Sightings were systematically broken down by witness category and special types of evidence. For example, individual chapters were devoted to sightings by military personnel, pilots and aviation experts, and scientists and engineers. Another chapter was devoted to evidence of intelligent control and yet another to physical evidence or interactions, such as electromagnetic effects, radar tracking, photographs, sound, physiological effects, and so on. Another section examined observed patterns, such as descriptions of shape, color, maneuvers, flight behavior, and concentrations of sightings. The book is still considered an invaluable reference source in the field.
When the U.S. Air Force], in collaboration with the University of Colorado, established the Condon Committee (1966-68) to study UFOs, NICAP initially aided its investigations, but Keyhoe quickly became disenchanted, limiting NICAP's role. NICAP formally severed ties with the Condon Committee in early 1968. Following the Condon Committee’s report (which concluded there was nothing extraordinary about UFOs), public interest in the subject abated, and NICAP’s membership dropped to about 5000.
1969 saw the last NICAP efforts of any significance, two monographs: Strange Effects from UFOs and UFOs: A New Look.
NICAP's membership plummeted in the late 1960s, and Keyhoe faced charges of financial incompetence and authoritarianism. By 1969, Keyhoe turned his focus away from the military and focused on the CIA as the source of the UFO cover-up. By December 1969, NICAP's board, headed by Colonel Joseph Bryan III, forced Keyhoe to retire as NICAP chief. Bryan was actually a former covert CIA agent who had served as founder and head of the CIA's psychological warfare division. Under Bryan's leadership, NICAP disbanded its local and state affiliate groups (Denzler, p. 17). Afterwards, John L. Acuff became NICAP’s director.
NICAP’s membership continued to drop as it was led by Acuff and then Alan Hall. By now the organization was all but paralyzed by infighting, including substantiated charges that the Central Intelligence Agency had infiltrated NICAP. Several persons with CIA ties had joined NICAP; however, their motives and reasons for joining NICAP have been the subject of some debate.
One person specifically named as a suspected CIA infiltrator was retired Air Force Colonel Joseph Bryan III. His son, writer C. D. B. Bryan, dismisses this idea, suggesting that "Anyone who knows anything about the history of NICAP knows that the group didn’t need anybody's help in its disintegration; it simply self destructed." As to his father’s involvement as an alleged CIA agitator, Bryan writes, "my father’s unswerving, outspoken faith in UFOs ... was, I felt, something of an embarrassment ... I do not believe it was the sort of public position an agent would take whose covert goal was to smother interest in UFOs." (Bryan, 191)
1980 saw the last publication of NICAP’s newsletter; the organization dissolved later that year. NICAP's archive of UFO sighting case files was subsequently purchased by the Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS).
References in popular culture
- The frequently UFO-themed X-Files made occasional references to NICAP, most notably in the season 1 episode Fallen Angel in the shape of NICAP researcher Max Fenig. Fenig later returned in the season 4 two-part episode Tempus Fugit/Max.
- Bryan, C.D.B., Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind: Alien Abduction, UFOs and the Conference at M.I.T. Alfred A. Knopf, 1995; ISBN 0-679-42975-1
- Clark, Jerome, The UFO Book: Encyclopedia of the Extraterrestrial. Visible Ink, 1998; ISBN 1-57859-029-9
- Danzler, Brenda, The Lure of the Edge: Scientific Passions, Religious Beliefs, and the Pursuit of UFOs. University of California Press, 2003; ISBN 0-520-23905-9
- Druffel, Ann: Firestorm: Dr. James E. McDonald's Fight for UFO Science, Granite Pub, 2003; ISBN-10: 0926524585
- Hynek, J. Allen, The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry, Chicago: Henry Regenery Co., 1972
- "The Quest For The Truth About UFOs: A Personal Perspective On The Role Of NICAP", Richard H. Hall, 1994
The Washington (DC) Daily News. "Adm. Fahrney Quits Saucer Probers". 10 April 1957. Quote: "Illness in my family and previous commitments on which I depend for my livelihood force me to take this step." ↩
"Photo Bios". Francis L. Ridge. Retrieved on 2009-03-31. Quote: "He resigned from NICAP in Feb 1962 and was replaced on the NICAP Board by a former covert CIA high official, Joseph Bryan III, the CIA's first Chief of Political & Psychological Warfare (Bryan never disclosed his CIA background to NICAP or Keyhoe)." ↩