It has been 41 years since President Roosevelt opened National Airport on a site he personally selected in preference to a small Army Air Corps landing strip in Camp Springs where Andrews Air Force Base is now located. It has been a long time since anyone referred to Washington National Airport as one of the world's greatest facilities or one of its most beautiful. But it remains among its most convenient, as the current debate over how best to balance the demands of peacetime airline commerce and the sensitive ears of Washington's Potomac Riverbank gentry shows.

Convenience is the only legitimate reason for the continued existence of National Airport. It has no room to expand, it is less than satisfactory from a safety point of view, it is a midtown eyesore and an assault against all that is quiet and decent for those who live near its flight paths. But boy, is it convenient, not just for the congressmen who insist on perpetuating the status quo at the airport, but also for almost everyone who lives inside the Capital Beltway and needs to fly.

Given the problems this deteriorating center-city airport poses--inadequate parking, insoluble traffic jams, gypsy taxicab drivers jockeying for position, congested ground traffic, noise for the neighborhoods and the monuments, less-than-desirable safety characteristics, irritating and obvious perks for congressmen, Supreme Court justices and diplomats-- why not just close the airport? Why not just shut the door and declare victory? It is time to consider that an alternative.

A battery of attorneys, noise specialists, planners, managers and consultants have been struggling for more than 10 years to solve the National Airport puzzle. Every time they draft another policy or propose another noise rule, somebody finds something wrong with it, and Congress or the courts block it. Criticisms of all National Airport plans, including the current one, sound something like this:

The proposal is unacceptable because it does not (pick your favorite):

*Provide enough relief from jet engine noise to those living along the Potomac or to tourists seeking a quiet moment to contemplate the memorial to the Great Emancipator.

*Do enough to promote beautiful, underused Dulles International Airport.

*Give the newly competitive airlines a chance to compete.

*Give congressmen a guaranteed nonstop flight home at 4:30 p.m. Thursday.

*Give Birmingham (or Houston) a fair shake in its commercial battle with Atlanta (or New Orleans) because Atlanta (or New Orleans) has nonstop service to the nation's capital and Birmingham (or Houston) does not.

*Consider the obvious fact that National Airport is unsafe.

Each new secretary of transportation and each new Federal Aviation Administration chief tries anew to balance these competing concerns just as Secretary Drew Lewis and administrator J. Lynn Helms are doing now. But all of these balancing acts have had one thing in common: they have all assumed that Washington National Airport--the 10th busiest in the nation and the 16th busiest in the world--must remain in business, right where it is.

"The only argument you have to address head-on when you ask (why National Airport should not be closed) is the argument of convenience. No other argument to leave it open makes sense." That is the opinion of Eric Bernthal, a Washington lawyer who heads the Coalition on Airport Problems, the umbrella citizen committee that is seeking to force the Federal Aviation Administration to make National Airport a better neighbor.

"Even those who argue that it's safe can't contend it's as safe as Dulles," said Bernthal. "In terms of facilities to accommodate people, it is one of the oldest and least accommodating airports because of its age and its inability to improve because it is small. It's location is unfortunate because people have to compete with commuter traffic to get in and out of it. The environmental impact is obvious."

"Actually we have thought about closing it," said one battle-weary specialist at the Department of Transportation. "It would solve a lot of problems; but it's never going to happen and you know it, and that's why we don't officially consider it."

"Closing an airport is a community decision," said a senior official at the Civil Aeronautics Board. "Congress is part of this community and an important part. The decision has already been made: the airport is not going to be closed."

Both of those federal officials are experts on the subject. Neither would agree to be quoted by name, so politically sensitive is the question. The airlines are not much help either.

"We really don't want to deal with that question," said a spokesman at Eastern Airlines, the biggest passenger carrier at National and the one with National's most lucrative service: the hourly shuttle to New York.

"I can't see us discussing that right now," said a spokesman for American Airlines, the carrier that tried to break a 13-year-old gentlemen's agreement last summer by starting nonstop service between National and Dallas-Fort Worth.

There, are of course, mavericks. Edwin I. Colodny, president and chairman of USAir, instantly sobered up a luncheon of the Aero Club of Washington last January when he said, "It is time to recognize that Washington National Airport will continue to be a festering problem under (airline) deregulation unless farsighted action is taken ... When Dulles is completed and available, consideration should be given to eliminating Washington National as an air carrier airport, perhaps closing it entirely and dedicating the land to other uses."

That speech did not result in the immediate formation of a Senior Airline Executives Committee To Close National Airport. "I was trying to focus attention on the fact that we really didn't have a long-term solution" to airport problems for Washington, Colodny said in a recent interview. "I have found that I stepped on a lot of different toes."

Bernthal, the citizen groups' leader, said, "We don't think realistically" that the airport is going to be closed. However, he said, "I think if you could find a mechanism to do it, every airline would stand up and shout, 'Hurray!' They would like to have modern facilities, unlimited airspace and ground-side capacities, and not have to worry about irate neighbors, lawsuits and bad will. They would like to be able to funnel all their passengers to one airport. Their pilots obviously would prefer it. But it's clear because of airline economics they can't go one by one to Dulles or BWI; they all have to go at once."

Many citizen groups, particularly in the noise-battered Rosslyn, North Arlington and McLean areas of Virginia, have passed resolutions urging that the airport be closed. Of the region's official bodies, however, only the National Capital Planning Commission has formally suggested closing the airport. The commission is supposed to look after the federal interest in planning matters in Washington. Its position on the airport was adopted in 1980, according to ation and the 16th commission chairman Martin J. Rody, after the group decided that "the impact on the monumental core (of the city) really cannot be mitigated by any of the alternatives" that leave National Airport in operation.

Noise is the biggest public concern at National and the issue that has plagued the airport's management and the airlines that use it since jets were first admitted there in 1966. That action is regarded by many longtime residents as a breach of trust by the federal government, which had built Dulles International Airport miles out in the Virginia countryside to be the jet airport for Washington. When Dulles was built in 1960, however, the jet planes of the day were too big to land at National. Both the Boeing 707 and the McDonnell-Douglas DC8, which ushered in the passenger jet era, require much longer runways than National has and are horribly noisy.

Jet technology advanced rapidly, however, and it wasn't long before early models of the Boeing 727 and McDonnell- Douglas DC9 were available that could operate conveniently and safely from short runways. They were still noisy, however. Enormous strides have been made in recent years in quieting jet engines, partly because of federal regulation, partly because of pressure on the manufacturers from the airlines, which are running into angry, litigious, citizens around the country. Despite the progress, many old and noisy jets remain in the domestic fleet and are certain to be there for years to come.

Just how bad is it at National? That is an ear-of-the-beholder question. Anyone trying to give a back yard party in Georgetown or Tantallon can expect to have conversation interrupted every few seconds. The once-popular Watergate concerts on the riverbank below the Lincoln Memorial have been abandoned because the music couldn't be heard over the jets.

The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that 93,000 people are within the noisiest area around National Airport. Northwest Airlines, in documents it has introduced into the National argument, says that's nothing: 19 other airports in the country have noise problems affecting more people than the noise problem at National affects. That should be comforting.

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, whose members are locally elected politicans from all of the area's major jurisdictions, has been the scene of a number of amusing attempts over the years to force the FAA to readjust flight patterns at National and thus mitigate the noise impact. The FAA has always agreed to do anything that was reasonable and safe.

The problem is that shifting noise away from those most afflicted today means that other people, who also vote, will get the noise tomorrow. The Council of Government's efforts to come up with a plan have inevitably ended in a return to the status quo, because the way for noisy airplanes to bother the fewest people is to fly the patterns they fly today --up and down the Potomac.

Airline pilots interviewed for this article say there is no particular safety problem in flying up the center of the river or cutting back power shortly after takeoff, both standard noise-abatement techniques. Some pilots who do not know the Washington area well have trouble following the twists and turns in the Potomac, however, and that makes citizens in Rosslyn angry.

"We have had cases of pilots going up Rock Creek Park, mistaking it for the river," said Larry Horton, a pilot who regularly uses National. When the weather is bad and clouds cover the area, the river cannot be used for guidance and pilots follow a straight-line radio beacon that carries them over the Washington side of the river, making residents of Potomac Palisades, Wesley Heights and Glover Park unhappy.

The best defense the airport has in this regard is that many thousands of people have bought homes or condominiums close to the river in full knowledge that National Airport exists and that planes fly to and from it, making noise as they do so.

Safety is a close second to noise as the most often raised issue with National, despite the splendid safety record-- there has been only one fatal accident involving a commercial airliner since the airport opened. That came on Nov. 1, 1949, when a war-surplus, twin-engine P38 Lightning fighter plowed into the rear of a four- engine Eastern Airlines DC4 that was coming in for a landing. All 51 passengers on the airliner and its crew of four were killed in what was at that time the nation's worst air disaster.

The fighter pilot, 29-year-old Capt. Erick Rios Bridoux, a Bolivian Air Force officer, suffered a broken back and other injuries. The Civil Aeronautics Board, which then had responsibility for investigating aviation accidents, charged that Bridoux was guilty of flying an uncertified airplane and that he failed to alter his course and "give way" to the passenger plane.

During the CAB probe, investigators rented another P38. The chief CAB pilot, wearing the same kind of flight jacket Bridoux had worn, flew the same flight track. Every time he retarded the throttle, he testified, the sleeve of his jacket turned down the volume on the radio to the point it could not be heard. Communication between the control tower and Bridoux was a key element in the accident. The CAB also said that the air traffic controllers at National did not "act with requisite caution." However, the report said, this "cannot be said to have contributed to the cause of the accident."

But the CAB's findings, just like those of the National Transportation Safety Board today, cannot be used as evidence in court. A jury cleared Bridoux of all charges and found Eastern Airlines responsible. That verdict was finally upheld in the United States Court of Appeals in 1956.

Despite the record, pilots of today's high-performance jetliners do not like National, which was built in the era of twin-piston-engine DC3s. The thing they like least is the southbound approach they must fly down the Potomac River. That approach is used about 45 percent of the time.

"It's my view, being familiar with the airport for many, many years, that the river approach is probably one of the most difficult in the United States," said J. J. (Bud) Ruddy, one of three members of the Air Line Pilots Association who sat down with a reporter to discuss safety issues.

What pilots like is a "stabilized approach," a straight-in shot where the plane is lined up with the center of the runway some miles from the airport. Given that circumstance, the pilot can concentrate on speed and altitude and not worry about last-minute maneuvers. A straight-in southbound approach to National's main runway would bring a jetliner roaring right over the White House, the Ellipse and the Washington Monument grounds at low altitude. Quite apart from the 16th noise issue, the monument itself is just barely east of the centerline of the runway and would be a significant hazard.

Thus, the river approach. Planes snake down the Potomac River, glide to the left just over the Tidal Basin and the Jefferson Memorial, then make a hard right turn on top of the 14th Street Bridge to line up with the runway at low altitude less than a mile from touchdown. They are traveling at about 150 miles per hour.

Instruments are of little help once planes have passed the Georgetown Reservoir, because instruments available today for precision electronic guidance to landing require a straight- in, no-obstruction approach path.

Concern about whether large jumbo jets, currently banned from National, could handle that tight-right turn is one of the major factors in the Federal Aviation Administration's decision to reopen the question of whether wide- bodied jumbo jets could use National, although nobody will say so officially.

In 1980 the FAA concluded that jumbos were safe there, although they have never been permitted to the use the airport except for a few test flights. Why the turnaround? administrator Helms was asked through a spokesman. Time passed, and the spokesman released this official statement:

"The August 1980 policy statement for the Metropolitan Washington Airports stated that the FAA was satisfied that wide bodies could be operated safely at Washington National Airport. As part of his overall review of the policy, FAA administrator J. Lynn Helms has carefully reassessed this finding and, rather than providing a blanket approval for such use, has concluded that air carrier aircraft types not currently operating there be evaluated individually to determine if each meets appropriate safety concerns and is operationally compatible with the airport facilities."

The Transportation Department's general counsel, John Fowler, was less guarded in a recent interview. "All we need to do is dump one into the Jefferson Memorial ...," he said, and then his voice trailed off. In other words, senior FAA safety experts, despite all kinds of assurances from the airlines, are worried about flying jumbos on the river approach.

The northbound approach to the other end of National's main runway is the only one at the airport with precision instrument guidance, known technically as an Instrument Landing System (ILS). Four of Dulles' runways have ILSes. All other airports in National's category in terms of passengers and flights handled have at least three ILSes; 80 percent of the airports in the next lowest category of passengers and flights handled have at least two ILSes. In short, National is well below standard in terms of sophisticated electronic guidance, and because of the airport's location nothing can be done to improve that situation.

C. O. Miller, a safety consultant and former chief accident investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, once suggested that "National Airport is so dangerous it's safe." His point was that things are so tight for pilots flying into National that they must be completely alert.

"The people who say this don't recognize the narrowness of the line that we are forced to walk," said Ruddy.

Ted Judd, another airline pilot who flies regularly into National, said, "You have to reach a point, when you maintain the same facilities that were built for DC3 operations back when, and you start increasing these operations enormously and bringing in larger airplanes, when you're going to reach the point of extremes where you're threatening this thin line. I think we're getting to that point right in this era ... Maybe that line is going to go in the other direction. And if you're a man who believes in odds, when you see how long they've gone without any problems, you may also think maybe the odds are going to catch up with 'em sooner or later."

The pilots have other problems with National:

The runways are about half as long as those at other major airports, and there is little or no "overrun," an unpaved area at the end of a runway that FAA safety regulations suggest. An extension to the overrun for the north end of the main runway is planned.

Because of the narrow noise-abatement flight paths pilots are supposed to follow into or out of the airport, they have to stay directly behind each other --and in each other's "wake," the air turbulence that trails behind them. Wake turbulence from jumbo jets is a larger problem and one reason the Air Line Pilots Association officially opposed using jumbos at National last year. At other airports, where pilots can turn in a variety of directions after takeoff, wake turbulence is less of a problem. All three pilots interviewed stressed that their criticism is not of noise abatement procedures per se, just that at National there is less room for manuevering. If they think a safety problem is developing in flight, they say they would not hesitate to abandon the noise abatement procedure to fly the airplane safely.

Water-rescue capabilities at National are inadequate, pilots contend, and a crash off either end of the main runway would inevitably end in the Potomac. However, James Wilding, director of Metropolitan Washington Airports, the Federal Aviation Administration's office that oversees both National and Dulles airports, claims that water rescue facilities are good and getting better.

The telephone poles and iron structures that support lead-in lights at the ends of the runways are solid, not of the breakaway variety that air safety experts recommend highly to reduce the likelihood of an airplane breaking up if it hits a pole while coming in too low. Wilding said that breakaway poles will be installed at National.

Horton and Ruddy fly for United; Judd flies for Eastern. All use National regularly. All prefer to use either Dulles or Baltimore-Washington International airports, however, and all said they had changed their destinations from National to Dulles or BWI be- cause of bad weather they might have accepted at an airport that offered better instrumentation and longer runways.

Ruddy said he had never decided to divert from National at the last minute, even after he had descended almost to the airport, broken through the clouds and found a situation he didn't like. At National, he said, he wouldn't let himself get into that position.

"I didn't put my foot into the water," he explained. "I knew enough to keep it out ..fs. You know, we operate in essentially a hostile environment. The atmosphere is ... not stable. When they certificate the airplanes, when we fly the simulators and all this stuff and we set up our procedures, it's all predicated on a stable operating environment.

"But the real world is not stable, and this is what really gets us in a crack ... The people really pay us to demonstrate our judgment so hopefully we won't have to demonstrate our skill ... Pilots get to the point where they recognize they can function in one of two ways: one is on judgment, the other is on skill. If a pilot plans and functions essentially on judgment, and then the world comes apart, he can always revert to raw skill at the end.

"But if a pilot tends to function primarily on skill ... then he gets to the unexpected, he has nothing left. He's at the end of his string. This is why pilots are perceived on some occasions as being unduly conservative. We have learned that ... to do things such as you suggest--to come over and give it a try--I have not (done that) at Washington. I have at other places, but at Washington I think I would be inclined to say, 'I'm not going near that place because I might get sucked in too deep.' Then I'd be on skill and push it on skill and maybe get things ..."

He didn't finish that last sentence.

Obviously, both the noise and safety questions would disappear if National were closed (although the residents of Reston, Herndon, Centreville and Leesburg, among other places, might find that a dramatically expanded Dulles is not quite the same good neighbor today's sleeping monster is). If National were closed, the 15 million annual passengers and 355,000 flights per year it had accommodated before the air traffic controllers strike would be split about equally between Dulles and BWI, according to an estimate from USAir's Colodny. Instead of handling 2.5 million passengers a year, Dulles' passenger load would jump to 10 million, and its flights from 161,000 flights per year to 339,000.

"I don't think you could abandon National Airport now," Colodny said, because the alternative facilities are not avialable. "In 10 years you could, if you did the planning properly."

The FAA's Wilding said, "One would have a hard time arguing that if you closed National, life wouldn't go on. But I think it would be a mistake ... I don't believe the answer lies in walking away. There is an enormous aviation-related asset there." If it were closed, Wilding said, "Obviously we would have to make an enormous investment at Dulles ... Dulles simply isn't ready to pick up the bulk of National's activity."

Although National is small in terms of acreage and runway mileage, it has 1.7 million square feet of space under cover in various terminals, offices and hangars--1 million square feet more than Dulles has. Adding that much extra covered space would take millions of dollars at Dulles. Additional work, primarily to increase parking, would be necessary at newly renovated and expanded Baltimore-Washington International. While the dollars required to expand Dulles could be recovered in landing fees charged the airlines (and, in turn, their passengers), that expansion would nonetheless be another item in the federal budget at a time the Reagan administration is doing everything it can to trim the budget.

The other side of the coin, however, is that National itself needs a little work, which also costs money, although much less than would be needed to expand Dulles. Renovations have been delayed again and again in the continuing battle over a long-term policy. Wilding said the main terminal needs some facelifting, and the little league North Terminal "should not be perpetuated." Most passengers would agree.

The control tower is cramped and inefficient, and the radar room below it is tighter still. Wilding would also like to improve the ground connection between the Metro subway station and the terminal. Metro, which spent millions detouring from its once- planned route under U.S. 1 to go to National, is located a country mile from the main terminal in a triumph of bureaucracy over common sense. Nonetheless, one passenger in every 10 using the airport risks life and limb to spring across the main roadway between the terminal and the Metro station. Once-expansive plans for multilevel roadways and parking garages have been abandoned.

There are other major economic factors that mitigate against closing National. Airlines have made investments there they don't want to lose. On the other hand, inner-city airports in Chicago, Houston, Dallas and Kansas City have been cut back significantly (but never closed) and the airlines have somehow found ways to transfer most of their operations to the big new terminals.

Arlington County, whose officials rail against airport noise in the north end, where its most influential voters live, is enjoying enormous prosperity generated in large part by its southern tip because of the continuing multimillion dollar development of Crystal City. Crystal City is now a fact, but it got its start, and its office and hotel space remains attractive, largely because of the proximity to National. On the other hand, Fairfax and Loudoun county officials have been waiting for years for Dulles to become the 16th a major economic generator, and the closing of National would certainly make that happen sooner.

It is because of complexities just like these that the executive branch of the federal government would like to be rid of the National problem. National and Dulles are the only major federally owned airports in the country. Thus the FAA finds itself in the uncomfortable position of establishing a federal precedent that other airports emulate whenever the FAA does something here.

Better the airport should be locally owned, responsible to its own political base. That was part of the reason Richard Nixon tried to sell both National and Dulles to the commonwealth of Virginia; the U.S. Department of Transportation has unofficially explored offering National to the District of Columbia government and the Office of Management and Budget has studied selling it to Metro; the landing fees could help offset the transit deficit.

If National were actually closed, the mind boggles in contemplating the debate that area politicians and federal officials would have as they decided what to do with some of the Washington area's most scenic real estate. It would begin with a technical legal wrangle over whether the airport land is in Virginia or the District of Columbia, an issue that is mooted by present use. How about another Rosslyn tower overlooking the Potomac River bridges? How about more parkland?

Back to reality, or, as Bernthal called it, the convenience argument, the one you have to address head-on:

When the 1980 airport policy of the Carter administration was proposed, the House Public Works aviation subcommittee held hearings. Rep. Gene Snyder (R-Ky.), who has always opposed any change in the status quo at National, asked one witness after another whether cuts were more likely to be made in flights at National under a local airport authority. Each time someone said yes, Snyder would look down the table at his colleagues on the subcommittee and smile. "You see?" he would say.

The official record on the most recent National Airport policy proposal has an inch- thick folder full of "congressionals," letters and comments from congressmen to the Department of Transportation or the Federal Aviation Administration. Local congressmen, such as Reps. Michael Barnes (D-Md.) and Frank Wolf (R- Va.), have weighed in with careful praise of plans for cutbacks in flights at the airport. They are a distinct minority.

Sen. Strom Thurmond (R- S.C.): "I am concerned about the effect these restrictions will have on the ability of small communities within South Carolina to provide air carrier service into Washington National, thereby ensuring convenient access to our nation's capital."

Rep. G. William Whitehurst (R-Va.), from Virginia Beach: " ... the use of alternate airports are not acceptable in light of local Norfolk-Washington, D.C., passenger traffic needs."

Sens. John P. East and Jesse Helms (both R-N.C.): The plan "fails to recognize the needs of these communities which have provided a wide variety of well-used routes to our nation's capital ... We feel it is important to point out the Congress insisted that air services were to be maintained in small and medium hubs when it dealt with deregulation."

Sen. Mark Andrews (R- N.D.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, the man the DOT and FAA go to for their annaul appropriations, sent Secretary Lewis a six-page letter asking questions about Lewis' plan. The questions read much like the objections of Northwest Airlines, which serves Fargo from National with a one-stopper through Minneapolis.

In other words, anybody with good access to National is concerned that any change in the status quo might damage that access. Congressmen ride those airplanes too, and National Airport is only 10 minutes from Capitol Hill. Dulles and BWI are 40 minutes in the best of times. That will change when Interstate Route 66 and the new Dulles connector are opeyears for Dulles to become the 16th ned, probably in 1983, but even a high-speed highway will not get 40 minutes down to 10. Maybe to 25 or 30, but not to 10.

From Eric Bernthal's point of view, that's enough improvement to end the argument. "How much convenience are we talking about?" he asked. "How much burden should we take for that convenience? Look at Chicago, Kansas City, Dallas, Houston. Every one of those cities has faced that same thing: give up a few minutes to get the airplanes out of downtown."

Each of those cities built a big, new airport out in the country. Each has an airport authority owned by a local or state agency that is responsible politically to the citizens who live near the airports. Those who live around National Airport are not so fortunate. Congress owns their airport and, just as it does in District of Columbia affairs that are not properly its business, Congress interferes whenever it wishes. However, even in Chicago, Kansas City, Dallas and Houston, the old midtown airports have not been closed. Because of their convenience, they have attracted new short-haul airlines like Midway and Southwest that have made the convenience of midtown location a major selling point.

Donald T. Bliss, a Washington attorney with O'Melveny and Myers, is one whose career has come full circle on National. He was general counsel at the Department of Transportation under President Ford and dealt at length with airport noise regulations in general and National Airport in particular. Now he represents the Air Transport Association, the airline lobby. "I think there are special reasons why a close-in airport is important in the nation's capital," Bliss said in an interview. "People prefer close-in airports. If the whole problem is one of balancing interests, it is legitimate to consider the interests of legislators and regulators getting out to see the real world.

"There is also the right of the public to travel and lobby government. If they have to go to Dulles or BWI, many of those trips cannot be made on a one-day basis, which may mean that many trips which should be made will not be made."

In the summer of 1979, FAA administrator Langhorne M. Bond was wrestling with the problems following the crash of the DC10 in Chicago that killed 273 people. Bond and some acquaintances were having breakfast one morning in a Los Angeles hotel and even there, at that time, with major questions about the DC10 still unanswered, the conversation turned to National Airport. How was the issue ever going to be resolved?

"I have a proposal," Bond said. "Call it my Congressional Airport proposal. Right now we have about 600 slots a day for airplanes to use at National. That is one slot, plus a few, for every member of Congress (there are 535). My proposal is to give each member of Congress one slot to do with as he sees fit, then divide up the rest among the important committee chairmen. Don't you like that?"

Obviously, he never proposed it formally. Maybe he should have.