To some, people who believe in UFOs are freaks and nut cases.

To others, like former Air Force pilot and staff scientist Donald M. Ware, they are enlightened souls who must serve as harbingers of a dramatic shift in global consciousness.Ware is convinced extraterrestrials have made repeated contact with earthlings over the centuries and that the frequency and magnitude of that interaction is increasing rapidly in the 1990s.

He told participants at the fifth annual International UFO Congress convention here Tuesday they have a responsibility to help prepare others for worldwide close encounters.

"It's a transformation of consciousness from thinking of ourselves as a member of a nation on planet Earth to thinking of ourselves as a member of planet Earth, equal partner in an association of worlds," Ware told an audience of several hundred in an afternoon lecture at the Oasis Resort. "That is a big jump in consciousness, and some of you have already made it."

Ware said the UFO phenomenon is not simply about extraterrestrial life forms from other planets that use advanced technology to travel to Earth and check it out. The alien presence, he said, has more to do with cosmic evolution, reincarnation and spiritual growth than it does with some science fiction invasion scenario.

However, what at least one alien species is doing, according to Ware, has a discernible sci-fi twist. Years of research, he said, have convinced him that skinny bug-eyed aliens are abducting humans and, through genetic engineering, creating a hybrid species.

Ware believes these half-human, half-alien bodies become vehicles for reincarnated human souls who need whatever the new bodies might provide - like increased brain capacity, perhaps - to further evolve.

"I think many millions of these new, larger-brained hybrid bodies already house human souls," Ware said in concluding his speech. "I hope `Star Trek' has conditioned us to accept people who look different than us.

"I hope we allow the hybrids to inhabit this planet before it becomes too late to save it from human selfishness. . . . Perhaps this is what is needed to bring to light a new world order that resembles heaven on earth."

To the uninitiated, Ware's theories may sound like a bunch of New Age science fiction nonsense. But in the UFO community - and it is a growing one both here and abroad - the existence of aliens is a given, and nearly any attempt at explaining their presence merits consideration. Ware's talk, not surprisingly, was well received by this crowd.

And unlike some armchair ufologists, the Arlington, Va., native has followed a life path that conceivably could give him the information needed to reach some conclusions about the UFO mystery.

As a young boy in 1952, Ware said, he witnessed a squadron of seven illuminated UFOs flying above northern Virginia. The sighting and others like it were shared by hundreds in the Washington, D.C., area and reported in local newspapers, he said. His interest was piqued.

In a long Air Force career that included two tours of Vietnam, an education in nuclear engineering and exposure to top secret information, Ware said he learned enough to know "somebody in the government has known for some time that some UFOs are controlled by a non-human intelligence."

The day after he retired in 1983, Ware joined the Mutual UFO Network, one of the oldest and - critics within the UFO community say - most conservative American organizations dedicated to UFO research. Later that year he became MUFON director for the state of Florida. He was the organization's lead investigator of the Gulf Breeze, Fla., sightings and alleged alien abductions, which began in the mid-1980s and reportedly continue today.

It was through interviewing countless Gulf Breeze UFO observers and more than a dozen alleged abductees that Ware began developing his theories. At the same time, he said, he was compelled to research such seemingly unrelated subjects as reincarnation, telepathy, out-of-body travel, near-death experience and spiritual healing. The more he studied, the more he saw a connection between it all.

During a sighting on Nov. 17, Ware said he was given the impression that aliens soon would make more direct contact with him. Perhaps to the disappointment of some, that did not take place here Tuesday.