Donald I. Fine. 347 pp. $18.95

WHEN THEY played "Taps" over Command Sergeant Major Ed Campbell, U.S. Army-Ret., early this year, I grieved not only for the loss of a crony but also for the loss of an airman of that legendary breed I had thought long since vanished.

Shortly after having found Marine ace Major Pappy Boyington in a Japanese POW camp, then 24-year-old Major Campbell, Army Air Corps, flew home in his B-29. He announced his intention to celebrate his return by flying that monstrous airplane under the Golden Gate Bridge. Thousands of dollars were wagered by his peers, not whether or not he would try, but whether or not he would make it. As it turned out, he didn't try. The autopilot went out as he crossed the wide Pacific, and he had to fly the plane by hand, and he was tired, and he was flamboyant, but not a fool.

If we are to believe . . . and I do . . . the characters in Dale Brown's Flight of the Old Dog, Ed Campbell's spirit is alive and well in the Air Force.

Brown knows whereof he writes. He was a Strategic Air Command navigator on B-52s and FB-111s. The heroes of his book are a B-52 and a navigator and an aircrew, in that order. He shares with most navigators I have known the devout belief that pilots are along to turn the engines on and off and, when the navigator tells them, to point the aircraft in the desired direction.

The story, and Dale Brown is a superb storyteller, is fairly simple. The Russians come up with (while our program is on hold) a Star Wars laser with which they first destroy one of our spy satellites, and then a Midgetman missile. The president decides that the Russian laser site has to go. A credible combination of happenstance eliminates the aircraft that would normally handle this, and a 30-year-old B-52 (The Old Dog), which had been taken out of line service and converted to a flying test bed for new weaponry, gets the job.

We do not get involved in a nuclear exchange, and the world as we know it does not go up in mushroom-shaped clouds. But aside from that I would not ruin this delightful, superbly crafted adventure tale for you by telling you here how the good guys, including two ladies, win.

I thought about this book a lot after I'd finished reading it, and that doesn't often happen. The first thing I thought was that Brown, with remarkable skill for a first novelist, really takes the reader along on the B-52. It was exciting!

The second thought I had was a little cynical. I could see the smug smiles on his publisher's face after he'd read the manuscript.

"Buy this quick! Even pay a decent price for it! We've got an Air Force Tom Clancy!"

Not quite, but almost. Clancy is a national treasure who probably should be stuffed and put on display in the Smithsonian. Dale Brown is well ahead, however, of whoever is in third place.

There are very few people who can bring the layman to understand the incredibly complex weaponry in use today, and even fewer who cn portray the people charged with its use. Brown does a marvelous job with both. His description of what happens aboard a space vehicle struck with a laser beam was chilling. His Russians are real people.

The final thought I had was that Brown, because he is that rara avis, the novelist who writes the truth, gives us a fascinating picture of how men who are out there right now in Air Force bombers regard themselves and our society.

His hero, when the book opens, is having serious doubts about his role in the Air Force. Is he really on the frontier, protecting all that we hold dear from the communist menace? Or is everybody playing games with expensive toys?

One of the villians is an Air Force general, a righteous Academy man who has gotten his stars by going by the book, and will not violate standing orders under any conditions until he is threatened with exposure of a dalliance. The secretary of state comes across as a well-meaning wimp. The warriors don't hate him. It's a natural condition, like fog, and icy runways, that they have learned to live with.

And the warriors themselves? You put this book down thinking that they are probably people Dale Brown knew. And you're glad they're up there, right now, invisible except for the white contrails they leave across the sky.

Flight of the Old Dog will probably jump on the best-seller lists and stay there for a long time. It deserves to. And it will make a marvelous movie.

W.E.B. Griffin, a pseudonym, is the author of the forthcoming "The Brotherhood of War: Book VII -- The New Breed" and "The Corps: Book II -- The Raiders."