People keep asking me if I fly my own airplane. This is not such an unlikely question -- there is a certain kinship between high- performance automobiles and airplanes. A lot of heavy-duty car guys are pilots and fly themselves all over the country. Or in the case of rich pros like Mario Andretti, they have professional pilots to fly their Mitsubishi MU2 turboprops and the like.

Some say it's a great way to travel. I say it's one of the great put-ons of modern times. I would be more attracted to flying my own plane if it were not for a number of limiting factors -- gruesome expense, unbelievable inconvenience and, worst of all, the reasonable likelihood that you and your associates will end up splattered on some Appalachian hillside. This last component is, of course, the most serious, terminating any number of pleasurable activities, including breathing.

Private planes fall out of the sky far more often than many people realize. Few days out of a year pass without news of some single-engine eggbeater shredding itself in power lines or of a high-powered twin-engine plane augering into a shopping center parking lot. The glories of general aviation, based on my nonscientific examinations, seem to rank right up there with cab rides in downtown Beirut or late-night subway tours of the South Bronx.

My personal experiences with small planes involve such thrills as a crash landing in a Mississippi hayfield and a ride through a Georgia thunderstorm so violent that one of my fellow travelers in the Piper Twin Comanche knelt and kissed the macadam after we landed. I recall a flight from Pittsburgh to Detroit with a pal who was an avid private pilot. The entire trip was one long dialogue with the air traffic controllers as my pilot friend feverishly zigzagged through countless vectors to avoid commercial aircraft. It was difficult, dangerous and nerve-racking, but it was a reasonably normal flight in today's crowded skies. Sadly, my friend was killed in the same airplane a short time later.

It's not that I haven't tried to love flying. I have been the willing victim in a Learjet that barrel-rolled at 41,000 feet and in the jump seat of a P51 Mustang that pulled the same maneuver less than 100 feet above the Florida Everglades. Unfortunately, not all my pilot friends have been so skilled. I flew once with a guy whose routine included firing up the engines without a preflight check, taking off without seat belts fastened and drinking Canadian Club and Coke after getting airborne. His most cavaliertrick was to set the course and altitude on the autopilot, switch the fuel tanks to their skimpy reserve supply, then lie back in his seat and take a snooze. When the engines ran out of fuel and started sputtering, he'd awake, check the course, switch to the main tanks and doze off again. Guess what? He, too, was killed in a plane crash, but, ironically, another guy was at the controls. More of my friends have been bumped off in private planes than I like to remember.

Even the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a sort of SPCA of private aviation, admits that civilian flying can be dangerous to your health. One of its data analysts, Donald Johnson, has completed a comparison of general aviation travel and highway travel. Working with statistics from the years 1983 to 1985, Johnson found that riding around in a small airplane is 9.4 times more likely to kill you than traveling in an automobile. This seems to jibe with the findings of The Idaho Statesman, a newspaper that studied airplane and car fatalities from 1980 to 1985. It reported that for every 100 million miles traveled, 8.2 more people died in general aviation accidents than in auto accidents, which certainly makes you think twice about puttering around in a Piper instead of a Plymouth.

Furthermore, I have my doubts about the speed and efficiency of flying. When musing about using a Beechcraft or a Cessna for serious transportation, I think of all the weather that lurks along the East Coast -- winter blizzards and brutal summer thunderstorms that can interdict the best laid plans. Moreover, when one considers the overall time involved in flying -- the total portal to portal, not just runway to runway -- even the speed advantage largely disappears.

When I was the editor of Car and Driver magazine in the late 1960s, our midtown Manhattan offices were adjacent to those of Flying magazine, a fevered voice of the private aviator. One day I suggested a contest to Flying's editors. We would race, car versus plane, over a three-legged course: New York to Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh to Detroit and Detroit back to New York. The intermediate destinations would be hotels in downtown Pittsburgh and Detroit. We would compare times and costs of the two modes of private transportation. I reckoned the Car and Driver team would have a good shot at beating the Flying guys on the short leg from New York to Pittsburgh because the aviators would have to drive 30 miles to their airport in Westchester County and do a preflight inspection on the airplane while we were already motoring across along the Pennsylvania Turnpike. We might also have a shot at the Pittsburgh-to-Detroit leg, but the 11-hour drive from Detroit back to Gotham seemed a shoo-in for the opposition.

No matter. The Flying editors declined. They wouldn't race. The results, they surmised, especially when comparing the overall costs, would make them look bad.

Their refusal to race stands for me as the best affirmation of my oft-repeated recommendation: If you've got plenty of time, fly, but if you're in a hurry, drive. Based on what I'm reading in the papers, I think your life insurance agent would agree. ::