This life, this death:

"We fighter pilots lived very well, ohh, very well," says Wing Commander Bob Stanford-Tuck, Royal Air Force, retired, 30 confirmed kills.

"We drank the best wines, champagne, we stayed in the chateaus all over France," says General-lieutenant Adolf Galland, Luftwaffe, retired, 104 confirmed kills.

Mustached, rueful, wry, nostalgic, these best of enemies, now in their 60s, float well-veined hands through the air - dive attack, fire a long burst till the flaming debris snaps back past their cockpits, the oil blinding the windscreens, flames, blood, the parachutes wobbling open - and their fingernails go gleaming off through the grey morning here in a lounge at the Army-Navy Club.

"We had our sports," says Stanford-Tuck. "I kept my horse near the field, so I could ride with the local hunt."

"It was the same for me, yes," says Galland.

Used to line our tunics with scarlet silk, and always wore the top button unbuttoned, very important," says Stanford-Tuck.

"The British called me 'The Fighting Fop,'" says Galland.

"That hat," Stanford-Tuck cries. "All crushed down, no stiffener. How did you ever get away with that?"

They've met before, of course - one day at 14,000 feet over the French coast. Spitfire versus Messerschmitt M8. The fight, while inconclusive, is memorialized in a painting by British artist Frank Wootton, and prints are for sale at $150 a piece from Virginia Bader Fine Arts in Arlington, which is why they are here.

"It's to raise money for the Battle of Britain museum and the RAF benevolent fund," says Stanford-Tuck, crisply ferocious with scarred cheek and impeceably tiny necktie knot.

"In Germany, we have a little museum, only a private one with no support," says Galland, a paunchy man with hard, wise eyes. "The difference is, we lost."

Remembering: World War II fighter pilots may have been the last men in Western civilization to carry the fate and honor of their countries into single combat. And even then, it was a peculiar whorl of time and technology that made them knights and revived the chivalric code.Three decades later, fighter pilots are scientists programming computers to destroy planes they'll never see at the icy scream of March 2.

"When they shot down Douglas bader, they entertained him, they took proper care of him," says Stanford Tuck.

Bader was a double-amputee ace who in 1942 escaped his burning Spitfire by removing his legs.

"When I heard that we had taken him prisoner," says Galland, "I sent my staff car around and gave him a tour of our field. I showed him my plane. He asked if he might start it, but I said no.Later, he escaped and I was in trouble for it."

Bader escaped precisely because the Germans had permitted the Red Cross to parachute him a new pair of legs.

"This was early in the war," says Stanford-Tuck.

"Later, it got hard, it got very hard," says Galland, by which he means not difficult but savage, mechanical, obdurate. "When the Americans came in, it became a war of material."

By then, Stanford-Tuck had been taken prisoner himself. He escaped in 1915, fleeting from Germany to Russia ("The wrong way," Galland laughs) where he caught aboat from Odessa to Istanbul. He'd been wounded twice, "caught a bit in the left arm, and once in a very undignified place - one of the nurses said. 'Another inch, and you'd have had to join the WAF's.'"

Galland stopped flying combat missions after 1941. He had begun in Spain with the Condor Legion in 1936 and went on to be wounded "four or five times," and became known as "the first millionaire pilot, for the value of the planes I destroyed - I crashed twice in one day, one time."

By the end of the war, Galland commanded both the day and night fighter arms of the Luftwaffe.

"The losses, the losses," he says. "You can lose the machinery, but the men, especially the experienced ones, you cannot replace. The Americans would send over 1,200 bombers, with 1,000 fighters. We would send up 600 fighters . . ."

In the beginning, Galland flew with three brothers in the same squadron. "Two of them died, one after 17 kills, the other after 23."

Still, it doesn't take much to scramble their hands for combat as they talk about the ultimate helpless terror of two planes flying at each other head on, guns blasting, Spitfire and Messerschmitt machinegunning each other into sheet-steel confetti.

"If you turn away, you're vulnerable, you see," says Stanford-Tuck, his ruddy palm peeling off over the coffe table.

"The question," says Galland, with a small smile, and his fingertips converging, "is which one (his hands flare apart and pass) goes on top, which on the bottom?"

Their battles now are art, not only in Wootton's prints, but in memoires, Stanford-Tuck's "Fly for Your Life," and Galland's "The First and the Last."

"I have been translated into 14 languages including Chinese," says Galland.

"Chinese," snaps Stanford-Tuck. "They haven't published me in Chinese."

They lectured last night at the Air and Space Museum and are scheduled to appear at the Atlantic Gallery, in 5 to 7.