An electronic box sits in the middle of the cluttered room that serves as the office, social center and supply store of the College Park airport.

"College Park Unicom?" a voice crackles out from it.

The voice continues. "N4627B, we're now above Silver Spring. Inbound for landing. What is your active runway?" It's the pilot of a small plane, many hundreds of feet in the air. The number he cites is, in this world of flying, his identity: It's the number painted on his plane.

Dave Jones, assistant manager of the airport, picks up the microphone of the unicom and answers. "N4327B, College Park active is Runway 33. Will you need gas when you land?"

The consveration continues for a few more minutes, while the rest of the hubbub in the room stops. Jones tells the pilot the wind direction on the ground. Sometimes, he says, he'll offer to call a cab for the pilot.

"Since we don't have an aerial tower, we can only advise and not give directions for landing, like you see at big airports," explained Jim Powell, the former manager of the airport. "Airports like ours, without an aerial tower, used to called uncontrolled airports. But such a stink was made, now they're called non-tower airports. Who wants to be called uncontrolled?"

College Park airport is more than just a non-tower airport. It's the world's oldest continuously operating airport, a title it has borne with different degrees of pride, or even recognition, in the years since the first plane took of there in 1909.

Soon after their successful flight at Kitty Hawk, the Wright brothers themselves were in the Washington area, trying to peddle their planes to the U.S. Army Signal Corps at Fort Myer.

They were greeted with skepticism and a challenge: The Signal Corps wasn't interested unless the Wright planes could travel at least 40 miles an hour and carry two people aloft for at least an hours. The third requirement was that the plane would land in such a way as not to prevent its ever taking off again. Crash landings were not going to be a planned part of the U.S. Army modus operand.

After several months of trying, the Wrights were successful and a plane called the "Miss Columbia" became Signal Corps Airplane No. 1.

"The people at Fort Myer were overjoyed when the Wrights decided not to stay there," said Powell. "They decided they needed a larger area than the drill field they had been using in Virginia."

Another factor favoring the College Park site was that it lay near the Baltimore & Ohio railroad tracks and a streetcar line to Washington. College Park in those days was a sleepy burg with the Maryland Agricultural College, now the University of Maryland, as its chief claim to fame.

Wilbur Wright was hired to teach two lieutenants, Frank Lahm and Frederic Humphreys, how to fly. Each soloed for about three hours on October 26, 1909; Lahm said later that he landed around dusk "only because it was suppertime."

"They were the first military officers to fly an American plan and they did it from College Park," said Powell, with a touch of airport chauvinism.

The next day another aviation first occurred at the airport, when Wright took the first woman for a plane ride. According to the story, he had to be persuaded to do so, and was mortified when her skirts (for, of course, she was dressed in the proper attire of the time of her airborne jaunt) blew up around her knees from the wind. He landed and some enterprising person on the ground tied a rope around her skirt.

The Army added some more hangars and more planes during the peak years of 1911 and 1912. "But then they decided it was too cold around here," said Powell as he walked past the area where the seven hangars once stood in a row. "First they moved for the winter to Augusta, Georgia. Then they just moved entirely to fields in the West and the South."

The airport was owned privately for tthe 60 years after the Army left in 1913. Instruments and helicopters and even machine guns have all been tested using College Park as home base.

During the 1950s and 1960s, according to a few of the pilots who used it, the airport was rundown and even dangerous.

"The runway was parallel to railroad tracks and right near a huge radio tower," said Bob Haas, who helped in the drive to win historic recognition for the airport. "If you were on the level of the tower, you knew you were coming in at the right height. But you also had a chance of hitting it."

The Maryland Park and Planning Commission, in an attempt to guard the airport from development, took over its operations in 1976. About 80 planes dot the field at any one time, give or take those that are up in the wild blue yonder. They're lined up in neat rows, the fancy ones with radio controls aloof from the simpler ones without each in its portion of this winged parking alot.

College Park is a non-commercial airport: There are no rentals or lessons offered, to avoid ruffling the neighborhood with excessive noise from planes. The pilots who are stationed there form a small society in themselves.

Bill Blizzard, the acting manager since Powell decided to move to Michigan, has flown in the area since 1947. He views his new job philosophically. "It's a good airport," he said. "But even if it has a past to it, you still have to deal with things like a hangar door falling off, which just happened."

"Some have a feeling that they're flying at someplace historic," said Powell. "They'll bring their friends here and point at a piece of ground and tell them what went on there. I don't correct them if what they're saying isn't quite right. The feeling is there."