'Mad Dog" Copeland is the kind of Navy fighter who called a buddy when the Iran-Iraq war broke out and said, "This is Mad Dog here. I'm ready to fly and fight. Which side has the worst air force? They're the ones who need us."

On the first Monday in October, instead of flying F-4 Phantoms over Baghdad, Lt. Cmdr. Winston Copeland was 60 miles southeast of Washington at Patuxent Naval Air Test Center getting ready to become the first military pilot to take a prototype F-18 up to 40,000 feet over the Chesapeake Bay, yank the stick back into his groin and see what happens trying to fly it nearly straight up. Even by the jaded standards of Pax River, where 90 Navy and Marine test pilots routinely go through maneuvers that would churn the stomach of Col. Steve Canyon, Copeland's flight was considered extraordinary.

The 36-year-old Copeland had already logged more than 30 hours in the F-18. That alone made him a member of a select fraternity. The Navy is allowed only limited flight test hours in F-18 prototypes because they are still being developed at Pax River by McDonnell Douglas.

But today's flight would be different. For the first time, a military pilot would take the F-18 through maneuvers simulating combat flying. Everyone was aware of the risk. Copeland's plane was specially equipped with a tail parachute that would release at 20,000 feet to stabilize the plane if things got out of hand.

During the pre-flight briefing, Copeland, dressed in a bright orange flight suit, sat at the head of a long table surrounded by a dozen earnest engineers who would be simultaneously monitoring his flight on television and computers. Everyone in the room remembered that another prototype F-18 had crashed in England a month earlier. But that didn't stop Copeland from putting the civilian engineers in their places when he announced, "The bottom line on all this stuff is that I'm not interested in a lot of hard data, I want to fly it by the seat-of-the-pants, I want to know how comfortable it feels."

Copeland lifted off on a clear, crisp afternoon at 1:48. Within eight minutes, the plane was at 33,000 feet, flying at 84 percent of the speed of sound. Over the cockpit microphone, one could hear the steady and controlled inhale-exhale of Copeland breathing into his oxygen mask.

"Forty thousand feet. I'm starting a smooth 1-G stall." That was Copeland's toneless voice announcing that, in effect, he was pointing straight up and his wings no longer had any lift. The throttle was set for full military thrust.

On the ground, one could follow the action in living color over a Sony television set. Next to the TV was a red phone with a placard reading, "In case of crash, call 3222 and report crew location."

On the screen, the picture changed.Copeland's $18 million plane was pointed down, a vapor trail streaming from its tail, falling, falling, falling at 10,000 feet a minute. "Flameout" was the word on the lips of the engineers on the ground. The right engine. Over the microphone, came Copeland's steady inhale-exhale. "He's over-temping, he's over-tempting," said the chief engineer in a strained voice. "Tell Cope to shut off his engine."

The engine flame-out was serious; this was only the fourth time one of an F-18's two engines had shut down in flight. But in the cockpit, Copeland was certain the engine would automatically relight itself. What troubled and confused him was the order to manually shut off an engine. He was cursing to himself about the medding civilians on the ground who didn't even have the sense to tell him which engine to turn off. It wasn't until he looked at a temperature gauge that Copeland realized the right engine was too hot, "over-temping" at 815 degrees. He shut it down.

Two minutes later, it was over. Copeland leveled off at 22,000 feet and relighted the right engine. Copeland's laid-back calm voice came over the microphone, the voice of a pilot who only wants to know one thing, "Am I clear to go on?" Only after being reasureed that his mission was not going to be aborted, did Copeland take the time to ask, "What happened to my motor?"

Another day, another dollar at Pax River -- a sprawling 6,377-acre Naval base in St. Mary's County, Md., where some of the best pilots in the world strut their stuff testing aircraft for the Navy and the Marines. For four weeks in September and October, I lived within this self-contained and self-satisfied world at a time when two desperate presidential candidates debated the military readiness of the United States. The whole experience left me with antipathy toward those strategic planners in Washington who live safe and prosperous lives weaving airy theories about defense capabilities without ever taking risks like flying the planes.

While at Pax River, just 60 miles from the White House, I tried to answer tangible questions about men and machines, fear and danger and, ultimately, why? What makes Mad Dog Copeland get into his F-18 and risk it all for you and Uncle Sam for a salary of about $32,500, counting allowances and tax advantages, plus $306 a month flight pay?

On the ground, the dark-haired Copeland embodies the tight-lipped, emotionless test pilot who tries to be in control of every situation. How do you talk about fear with a man who has survived 200 night carrier landings and two tours of duty flying over Vietnam?

Copeland's explanation for his life is simple: "I've always wanted to fly airplanes, and there's no better place than Pax River." He was born in Argentina, the oldest son of a career diplomat, and has been flying for the Navy since he graduated from Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 1967.

Copeland is married and has two children. He says his wife Patsy, a former Navy nurse who served in Japan during the first part of Vietnam, "is very accepting of it all. I don't think she was very excited by Vietnam. It was a tough period for her, tougher than now. She saw guys come back disemboweled from Vietnam. I think that experience helped her deal with her anxiety. She does a superb job in not burdening me with it."

Copeland is a rarity of Pax River because he didn't graduate from the 11-month course at the Navy's Test Pilot School on the base. In 1977, he turned down a chance to be an aide to a high-ranking admiral to attend the equivalent program at Edwards Air Force Base under an exchange program.

His three-year tour of duty at Pax River is almost over. Copeland will go back to the fleet, perhaps with the first squadron of F-18s, although he says that's "presumptuous to predict." Drinking coffee out of a mug with Mad Dog stenciled on it, he said, "I would never -- ever -- be a test pilot if it meant that I would have to give up my chance to go back to the fleet. Practicing carrier landings and chasing Migs around the countryside are the only way to go."

Unlike Copeland, Lt. Cmdr. Steve Hazelrigg is one of the test pilots at Pax River who routinely calls his wife within an hour or two of landing to let her know he's all right. The son of a career Army sergeant, Hazelrigg is a 1970 Annapolis graduate who would have quit the Navy to fly for the airlines if he hadn't been accepted at Test Pilot School in 1979. "My vision of test pilots if from old Humphrey Bogart and Glenn Ford movies," he said. "That's probably why I'm here."

Hazelrigg, a tall, stocky, slow-talking attack pilot from San Antonio, claimed, "I haven't done anything that I'd consider scary." Nevertheless, he acknowledged the risk of test flying. "I think about it occasionally," he said. "I probably don't do it consciously. I always believe that the other guy will be the one to get into trouble. I have the ability to get out of it." His wife, Jackie, a small dark-haired woman, put it this way: "We all know about the risk. We accept it. But no one really talks about it. Why talk about it; it's such a bummer."

1980 has been a bummer for safety at Pax River. 1979 was a banner year with no accidents despite more than 500 take-offs and landings during an average work day. This year's accident rate has been about three times the fleet average. The deaths have come in threes. In late January, a jet tanker crashed, killing the pilot and a crewman, after a mid-air refueling of an F-18. Three weeks later, a student at Test Pilot School failed to eject from a T-2 jet trainer during a spin demonstration that went awry.

The Hazelriggs and their two young daughters live in a $65,000 house in a subdivision about three miles west of the base. Theirs is a closed world. One recent evening, the Hazelriggs went to the local theater to see "Final Countdown," a movie loaded with footage of carrier takeoffs and landings. They found themselves sitting in the middle of three rows filled with test pilots and their wives.

The Hazelriggs' social life revolves around other couples who went through Test Pilot School with Steve. A typical party puts the men in one corner, swapping flying stories complete with elaborate hand gestures, while the wives sit among themselves, exchanging baby clothes and names of reliable sitters. The years at Pax River, with no fleet cruises and little night flying are about as close as most Navy pilots and their wives will come to normal family life. As a result, the wives of eight of Steve Hazelrigg's classmates had babies during the 11-month course at Test Pilot School.

The admission standards at the school, which graduates two classes a year of about 28 students each, are tough. To be considered, a fleet pilot must have logged 1,500 hours in the air, hold the equivalent of an engineering degree and commit himself to four more years in the Navy. The classes are augmented by a contingent of helicopter pilots from the Army and the Air Force and five or six foreign pilots from countries such as Australia, Canada, England, India and Israel. Alumni include the chief of naval operations, 12 other admirals on active duty, a Marine general, and about half of the original astronauts including John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Alan Shepard, Pete Conrad and Wally Schirra.

Drinking is part of the mystique of military aviation. Capt. Frank Dully is a Navy flight surgeon who came to Pax River in July with his two-hour lecture titled, "Sex and the Naval Aviator." Unlike most canned safety lectures, this one made an impression on the Hazelriggs and many of the other test pilots and wives in the audience.

Dully claimed to be able to tell what kind of aircraft pilots fly by the type of parties they give. For patrol and carrier pilots, parties are judged by the number of courses and the quality of the wine. For attack pilots, it is the size of the bar bill. And for fighter pilots, it is the size of the bill for damages to the bar.

To capture the flavor of life at Pax River, stop in at the Bachelor Officers Quarters bar, around 4:30 in the afternoon as a day's flying draws to a close.

In this dimly lit room with fake wooden rafters, many of the pilots standing against the long bar are still dressed in flight suits, while the civilian engineers are in open-neck sport shirts and polyester slacks. The juke box competes with the sound of pilots rolling dice for drinks. If you listen carefully, you can hear stories like, "A friend of mine got his in a mid-air collision over Miramar. He put in his will that after the memorial service there would be a $1,000 open bar. It was better than an Irish wake."

The pilots at Pax River -- mostly in their early and mid-30s -- are mature enough not to be suicidal about their drinking. While the rule of 12 hours from bottle to briefing is sometimes bent, there is an informal agreement that, without consulting the dreaded flight surgeons, a test pilot can scratch himself from the flight schedule because of a bad hangover.

One doesn't have to be a practicing psychiatrist to equate the drinking with suppressed fear. The protocol of a before-dinner interview at the BOQ bar with Lt. Cmdr. Chris Benjes, 32, a divorced balding F-4 pilot with a sandy mustache, required me to match him drink-for-drink as he downed four Miller Lite beers and four or five margaritas. Drinking with us was Rose Randall, a civilian systems analyst on the base, who has been Benjes' girlfriend since January.

From his heavy Seiko watch to his black 1975 Corvette, Benjes exemplifies virtually all the cliches about Pax River test pilots.

To start with the basics, he is a white male. The most recent black test pilot at Pax River was lost to the space shuttle program earlier this year. The sex barrier was dented in January when a woman who works for the Federal Aviation Administration entered Test Pilot School. She was dropped from the program over the summer.

Benjes is the oldest son and his father was career military -- a Navy pilot. He is an Annapolis graduate as are about half the test pilots at Pax River. Even his divorce fits a larger pattern. "I got divorced after my second sea cruise," Benjes said. "The divorce rate is pretty high among Navy aviators. A major part of it is attitude" -- or, as he admitted after some prodding, "ego."

Like most test pilots, Benjes describes his job as the culmination of a childhood ambition. "I always wanted to fly," he said. "I thought it was the only thing to do. Landing on a carrier in the daytime is almost as much fun as sex." But night carrier landings are different. "There has never been anything in test flying that I was anticipating as much as a night carrier landing. Nothing in test work gives you that kind of apprehension." Even in his choice of words, Benjes fits the norm. It's always "anticipation" or, occasionally, "apprehension," but never "fear."

Benjes ambled to the bar to buy the next round of drinks. Randall gave the view of a test pilot's girlfriend. "I swore after my divorce I'd never date a Navy pilot," she said. "The risk, the apprehension, the worry. We know wives who don't worry about a thing. But I've been working at the Test Center for 10 years. I know what's involved in these flights, and the wives don't."

Scratch a test pilot and underneath you will discover a frustrated astronaut. Chris Benjes was nominated by the Navy for the space shuttle program last year but he failed to make the final cut after a week of NASA interviews in Houston. Capt. Pete Gorham, the chief jet test pilot at Pax River, estimated that half the jet pilots on the base applied to the space shuttle program. Another quarter, he said, would have applied if they felt they had a chance of being accepted. In two rounds of selections for the shuttle, five pilots have been chosen directly from the base.

Benjes expressed the dominant attitude at Pax River when he said, "We all want to be NASA pilots. The ultimate goal is space. It's a hell of a lot better than being the first to fly the F-18. There you're still in the atmosphere, and you still have an ejection seat."

Benjes, at least, had the satisfaction of lasting longer in the selection process than F-18 pilot Winston Copeland, who wasn't even invited to Houston. It was a galling experience for Copeland, whose entire Navy career has carried him from one pinnacle to another, including being selected for the F-18 project after just three months at Pax River.

"Sure, I was disappointed," he said, allowing his stolid mask to drop for an instant. "The bottom line, I think, is that I would have liked to have been selected more for the honor of being selected than anything else. The blow to one's ego is more severe than not being able to do the work."

But the F-18 project remains the glamor job at Pax River. Surrounded by controversy because of its cost, the combination fighter and light attack aircraft, which will begin token fleet operations next year, is the Navy's plane for the 1980s, replacing a generation of aging F-4s, A-4s and A-7s. The F-18 doesn't fly higher or faster than existing fighters. Rather, its virtue is a "fly-by-wire" digital flight control system, which operates the tail assembly without rods or levers or other cumbersome machinery, allowing it to outmaneuver existing aircraft.

The official vogue word for the plane at Pax River is "reliability." But in the BOQ bar you can hear pilots grumble that the F-18 "doesn't have the range to be an attack plane. We don't know where some of the performance numbers for the plane come from."

Despite the aura surrounding the F-18, most test flying involves assessing minor modifications to existing aircraft, like a new computer or "black box." Steve Hazelrigg has been trying to find the ideal speed to drop the latest NATO bombs from an A-6. Chris Benjes is working on a problem with the F-4s, the latest version of the 20-year-old Phantom jet. Recently, fleet pilots have discovered that the air speed indicator on the F-4s has been reading a few knots too high as they came in for carrier landings.

So Benjes and two other pilots have been flying the F-4s at a precise speed and altitude while the engineers on the ground try to compute the air-speed error. Admirals from the fleet visit Pax River to monitor Benjes' progress, but that still doesn't compensate him for the tedium of flying a bus route in the sky where the most significant risk is encountering a sea gull.

Gorham, who is Benjes boss, admits that "some of our fighter pilots get bored after about two minutes in the air unless they have a new box of crayons to play with." Highrisk flying is one thing, Gorham said, but equally important is the kind of smooth flying that enables the pilot to record all the data points for the engineers on the ground.

Fighter pilots at Pax River miss the constant competitiveness of flying in the fleet. There they are exposed to a steady diet of ACMs (Air Combat Maneuvers) which pit one plane against another with the goal of getting on the other pilot's tail and "hosing" him for a kill. At Pax River, there is little need to simulate ACMs in test flying. One of the perks that came with F-18 testing for Winston Copeland was the chance to pit the plane against other fighters in authorized ACMs.

"Let me be honest, if you promise not to use my name," said one of the test pilots at Pax River. "When I'm up there doing a practice hop before a real test, it is not particularly unusual to fly around the area and look for someone else doing the same thing. We hassle each other and go through a few turns of a mock dog fight. At a normal base, I would never risk it. But here, sometimes the frustrations get to be too high."

At a minimum, the punishment for unauthorized ACMs is a letter of reprimand that could jeopardize promotion. But when asked about it, Rear Adm. John Wissler, the commander of the test center, took a boys-will-be-boys attitude. "You'll occasionally hear stories like that in the BOQ bar," he said, "but it's not a serious problem."

Ultimately, the greatest frustration for a test pilot is the bureaucratic politics of the Pentagon. "The political frustrations make life here damn difficult," Gorham said. "We've got the Pentagon and bureaucratic wrangling on the Hill. Take an idealistic young test pilot and he finds a problem in a new plane. Yet the Navy buys the airplane, but doesn't fix his problem. iSuddenly, he starts asking himself: Why am I here if they aren't going to listen to me?"

As a new test pilot, 33-year-old Marine Major Russ Stromberg, an Academy graduate, ran into this kind of a brick wall. "I'll never forget it," he said. "I went into a meeting and said there's a problem with this plane because I flew it and I know. But I didn't have any hard data. I lost my audience."

Marine Lt. Col. Peter Field is the director of the F-18 program. The hardest thing in the job, he said, is getting over his "political naivete." He has testified on the F-18 before the House Armed Services Committee. "There," he said, "my advantage was that I knew more about the airplane than they did. Also, we've given away rides in the F-18 to congressmen and military people who we knew would be impressed and speak for us." No, said Field, the real political pitfalls come from people in the Defense Department and the military who have other budget priorities.

Field, on his second tour of duty at the test center, helped explain the uncommon dedication and concern that distinguishes Pax River from most military bases. It's a simple matter of life and death. "A lot of junior officers in the next 10 years are going to fly the F-18," he said. "Whether they survive or kill themselves will depend on how well we catch everything that might be wrong in the airplane."

It took Major Russ Stromberg 45 minutes to describe exactly what happened during the eight seconds in early September when he ejected from a Harrier AV-8C that refused to take off and went over the bow of the carrier Tarawa, at sea near San Diego. Stromberg, who was about to finish his tour of duty at Pax River, had gone to the carrier for some final testing of the Marines' latest version of the British-designed VSTOL (vertical and short take-off and landing) aircraft.

"I was very surprised by the whole evolution of the thing. Everything went into slow motion," said Stromberg, who flew A-4 bombers in Vietnam without ever ejecting.

"After about one second, about 75 feet after I started rolling," Stromberg said, "I knew I was in deep trouble. As the plane approached the bow, I turned off the 'limiter' switch and took off all the power limitations on the engine. Still, there was no response. There was no overt decision to eject. It was just the next thing to do. I was surprised by the throught processes you go through. Every pilot believes nothing is going to happen to you, it's always the other guy."

He continued, "I couldn't tell by feel alone that I got a good grip on the handle of the ejection seat. I had to take time -- even if there wasn't a lot of it -- to look. I finally pulled the handle when I was about 30 feet above the water."

Stromberg paused to light a Marlboro. "There was a blackout and then I heard a loud boom as the seat went off. Rather than a sensation of being shot up in the air, I had the illusion of staying at the same point in space. Slowly my vision came back and I saw the parachute just before it blossomed. Luckily, the guy who was driving the ship was heads up. He went full left rudder to avoid me. I had just taken a water survival course and I knew I had to get rid of the chute, inflate the life vest and take off my face mask. Habit took over. I just waited in the water for the helicopter to pick me up."

There is a ritual that is scrupulously followed after accidents like Stromberg's. The enlisted man who rigged the parachute and the driver of the ship each got a bottle of Wild Turkey bourbon. "It was one hell of a cheap price to pay," said Stromberg, who admits he owes his life to the 100-percent safety record of the Harrier ejection seat.

But the accident wasn't Stromberg's "hairiest experience." That came four days later, when he got into another Harrier to continue the carrier testing. "I thought the first take-off would do something to me," he said, "but I was fine until I was downwind at night getting ready to land."

Suddenly, Stromberg was wrestling with fear, pondering all the suppressed questions. "As I went into my turn behind the carrier," he said, "I started asking myself, 'What are you doing here? Nobody would say a word if you just took off and went back to San Diego.' I feel better that I stuck with it and landed the plane."

Three weeks later, Stromberg couldn't fully explain why he stuck with it, instead of flying the plane to San Diego and out of the Marines. Especially since he had some good reasons for quitting. He is married with two sons and "for years," he said, "family life took second place to the Harrier program." And he wasn't afraid of adjustment to civilian life. Stromberg turned down a chance to go to law school to attend Test Pilot School.

Rather, in talking about his commitment to the Marines, Stromberg mentioned professionalism, the importance of the work and his belief in the Harrier program. But, ultimately, the reason he's still flying is: "I'm having too much fun to quit." CAPTION:

Cover, Photo, no caption; Pictures 1 and 2, Winston Copeland, one of nine Patuxent Naval Air Test Center pilots who is assigned to fly the Navy's prototype F-18s says, "A lot of guys at this base would give a hell of a lot to be in my shoes";; Picture 3, A plane crosses a Patuxent River Naval Air Test Center road as it moves toward a hangar; Picture 4, Of about 9,000 men and women who work at the center, two-thirds are civilians. The maintenance of the planes at the Test Pilot School is entirely handled by civilians; Picture 5, Pilots who test antisubmarine warfare planes such as this one are at the bottom of the pecking order. The barroom joke is that fighter pilots fly with one hand, attack pilots fly with two hands, and ASW pilots fly while adjusting their neckties; Picture 6, Lt. Cmdr. Chris Benjes drives one of the fancy sports cars that once were a test pilot's trademark. He recently got his girlfriend to buy a white Corvette to pair with his black 1975 version. Photographs by Bill Snead