IT'S QUITE an achievement to master the art of flying an airplane from the pilot's seat. But here's another challenge: piloting one from the ground. "In a real aircraft, you're part of the airplane, moving with it, and gain your perspective by looking outside," says Richard Perry of the Northern Virginia Control Line Association, a local model airplane club. "From the ground, your perception of speed is very different."

Thousands of area model aircraft "pilots" steer from this vantage point each weekend, most using models whose tiny engines are controlled by hand-held radios. This is both the most popular and the most expensive type of modeling today, with airplanes and radio kits running into hundreds of dollars. It's probably the trickiest way to fly because you must rely on eyesight alone. And the chances are that, although thre are a few ready-made models, you'll wind up building your own from kits or scratch.

Maybe you prefer the old control-line models, where the plane is attached to and guided by wire. Perry prefers this type because "I like to compete, and there's more opportunity for competition in this line." Competitions range from speed (the national record is around 200 mph, he says), to scale accuracy (exact replicas, in miniature), to taking off and landing on miniature Navy carrier decks.

There are still a few people around who like free-flight craft -- planes that you launch and let glide to a stop without any controls -- that are powered either by tiny gasoline engines or, more commonly, rubber bands. Scale modelers like this sport; so do purists putting together planes out of microfilm and balsa "that weigh no more than a gram," says Allan Schanzle of the Maxecuters, a local model club.

Then there are those who prefer rockets to airplanes.

The best way to get started on any of these, the hobbyists say, to hook up with one of nearly a dozen local clubs. There you'll find people of like passion who can help you build, fly and compete with your plane or rocket.

The airplane modelers are chiefly aligned with the Academy of Model Aeronautics in Reston, which offers an annual membership for $30. Most clubs also charge small dues, which they use to secure a field for flying. If you're not sure which one you'd like to join, club members suggest that you contact them and arrange to come out to their field on the weekend, bringing your model along. Most welcome spectators, kids included, as long as they take basic safety precautions. -- Deborah Churchman.

RADIO CONTROL CLUBS

CAPITAL AREA SOARING ASSOCIATION -- Kenneth Troxell, 762-6913. Club is radio control, but without engines -- no power planes. More than 100 members pay $15 annually, plus membership in the Academy of Model Aeronautics ($30). Sponsors contests once per month; meets in member homes once a month and flies on a sod farm near White's Ferry and at the Manassas Battlefield Park picnic area.

D.C. RADIO CONTROL CLUB -- Robert Hoff, 530-7974. Its 135 members "build, fly and crash" planes at the Montgomery County Model Air Park in Rockville. Dues are $35 annually; $7 for members under 18; plus membership in the AMA. Club includes scale, sport plane and helicopter modelers.

FAIRFAX COUNTY RADIO CONTROL -- Kwang Ko, 820-1203. Thirty members pay $15, plus AMA membership. Meets every Sunday morning at the Baron Cameron Park near Reston. Club not yet one year old; hopes to compete.

FLY AWAY RADIO CONTROL CLUB -- Austin Smith, 559-4027. Forty members pay $24 annually plus a $20 initiation fee. Meets the second Friday of each month at the Prince George's Recreation Center in Hyattsville; flies on an abandoned airstrip off East-West Highway.

HOWARD COUNTY RADIO CONTROL CLUB -- Mike Winter, 301/730-9267. Meets monthly at the Oakland Mills Middle School, and flies most weekends on 10 acres leased from the Howard Research and Development Corp. Its 140 members, mostly from Columbia, pay $30 annual membership, plus membership in the AMA. It sponsors a number of "fun flies" in the summer and a major contest for scale-model aircraft in June at the Bealeton Flying Circus.

NORTHERN VIRGINIA RADIO CONTROL CLUB -- David Beazley, 354-1784. One of the largest in the area, it has 250 members paying $20 annually, plus membership in the AMA, plus an initiation fee of $25. Meets twice a month at the Washington Gas building in Springfield; flies at a field in Arcola, near Dulles. Sponsors a number of contests each year, including a Snow Fly (with planes on skis) on January 19.

RED BARON FLYING CLUB -- Andrew Benjamin, 281-7899. Its 15 members pay no dues, but must join the AMA. Flies Saturdays and Sundays in the Manassas area. Little competition; "we pretty much just enjoy ourselves."

CONTROL LINE CLUBS

NORTHERN VIRGINIA CONTROL LINE ASSOCIATION -- Richard Perry, 455- 6515. Twenty members pay $9 annually, plus AMA dues. The club meets once a month in the Richard Byrd Library in Fairfax, and flies at the Frost Intermediate School in Fairfax most Saturday afternoons. It sponsors one or two contests per year.

SKY LANCERS OF WASHINGTON -- Bill Dwyer, 301/854-6423. Its 16 members pay $5, plus AMA membership. The club meets monthly in a member's home; flies on the Gude landfill in Rockville, usually on Sundays. It sponsors one contest in October. It also sponsors a show team that gives demonstrations around the area.

FREE FLIGHT CLUBS

MAXECUTERS -- Allan Schanzle, 840-5884. Its 40 local members pay $10 dues and meet on the first Wednesday of each month at College Park Airport, and fly on weekends in various high school gyms during the winter. Although the club includes a few gasoline-engine enthusiasts, most are interested in rubber-band-powered scale models weighing 2 ounces or less. The club encourages spectators, and is happy to steer youngsters toward the right kits and help them learn to fly without crashing.

ROCKET CLUBS

NORTHERN VIRGINIA ASSOCATION OF ROCKETRY -- Ken Brown, 451- 2808. This is the most active branch of the National Association of Rocketry in the area, its members say. The club meets twice a month at the Dolly Madison library in McLean. Its 20 members pay $4 annual dues, plus membership in the National Association of Rocketry ($15 to $24, depending on age). It runs occasional launches on Saturdays and Sundays near the picnic area at Manassas Battlefield Park. The club includes some scale, some radio control, some sport and competition rocketry. It holds regular matches, mostly in the spring. Some members compete nationally and internationally.

GODDARD VISITORS CENTER -- 344-8981, Ed Pearson. It conducts rocket launches on the first and third Sunday of each month at 1. The launches are chiefly demonstrations, but officials will help those with kits learn to put them together and launch them. The launches on January will be followed by a talk by Mike Metcalf, one of the 10 finalists for the teacher-in-space program.