By Billy CoxIn 1966, with Michigan eyewitnesses hounding House Minority Leader Gerald Ford for explanations, it looked like this UFO thing might bust wide open on Capitol Hill. As Missouri congressman Durwald Hall’s unhinged rant indicated during a brief hearing on April 5 of that year, measured perspectives were falling out of fashion.
Declaring that acid-dropping Americans “are almost synonymous with the number of space sightings we have today,” Hall added that people who reported UFOs reflected “a decrease in the morals and the fiber of those who would subject themselves to hallucinatory influences in the first place.”
The dude didn’t make any sense, but what the hell, it was Congress. Next thing you knew, the Air Force contracted the University of Colorado to get the 800-pound ape off its back. UC obliged, declared UFOs beneath the dignity of science, and handed the USAF an escape clause to walk away from its public UFO study, Project Blue Book, in 1969.
But more than Blue Book died 40 years ago. “NICAP folded shortly thereafter,” remembers Don Berliner. “It went on for a little while, but it was over for all intents and purposes.”
Founded in 1956 and reaching peak membership of 14,000 with more than half a dozen full-time employees, the National Investigations Committee On Aerial Phenomena became the largest private UFO study group in the world. One of its most diligent stewards was Richard Hall, who had a curious zest for immersing himself in reams of often dull, numbing, horribly written UFO reports filed by military and civilian eyewitnesses alike.
Exasperated by conspiracy theories and New Age dreck, Hall went on to write his “Reality Check” column for UFO Magazine and co-found the Fund for UFO Research, which financed investigations for more than 20 years into some of the strongest reports. But at the time of his death earlier this month, Hall’s Web site reflected more accessible priorities, such as genealogy, the Civil War, and his own artwork. You had to scroll down to reach the UFO stuff.
“He tried to get out of the field,” says Berliner, who presides over the remains of the Fund, “and he felt his ability to get a good job was hampered somewhat by research that a lot of people considered weird.”
Berliner met Hall when he joined NICAP in Washington in 1962. Pulling 15-hour stretches for up to two weeks at its office in tony Dupont Circle, taking astonishing reports from the likes of airline pilots walking in from National Airport, Berliner recalls that era with a sense of anticipation, like maybe something huge could pop at any moment.
“Well, it was the quality of the evidence,” Berliner says from Alexandria, Va. “Wishful thinking or speculation on what the government knew or didn’t know had no place in our work. Dick, and others, to a lesser degree, established a basis for looking at that evidence scientifically. We just didn’t see how anybody could ignore what we were collecting, especially given the standards we were using.”
At age 79, Berliner notes that he’s six months older than Hall. If you’d told him in 1969 we’d be no closer to solving the riddle than we are today, Berliner would’ve dismissed the idea as outlandish. And even as he states that “there hasn’t been a great increase in the intellectual capacity of congress in 40 years,” Berliner remains an optimist. A breakthrough, he says, is always just a couple of key documents or whistleblowers away.
“I fully expect to be around when that happens,” says Berliner as the NICAP generation passes into history. “I’m not going until that happens. I’m going to lash myself to a chair.”