With a slight bump the night sky disappears and the plane dips into the murk. In the amber glow of the cockpit, the pilot, Capt. Joseph Harenski, works more methodically now. The copilot, Tom Myers, left-hands the microphone to inform the 138 passengers of USAir Flight 442 what the little bump already has told most of them: Their flight from Charlotte, N.C., has begun its descent toward Washington's National Airport.

"USAir 4-4-2, this is Washington approach," a crackling voice from below invades the cockpit. "Stand by for vectors."

The controller's instructions will bring the two-engine Douglas MD-80 in on National's somewhat notorious downriver approach, a twisting course over the Potomac with a rapid drop onto one of the shortest main runways at any major American airport. Pilots call it the slam dunk.

The river run begins 13 to 14 miles out, just north of Great Falls. In clear weather the pilots can see the landmarks: straight in at 3,000 feet over "the rope factory" -- the Navy's long, skinny David Taylor research center just above Cabin John; swing right at the CIA; wheels down at 1,500 feet over the Georgetown Reservoir; take a bead on the 30-story USA Today Building looming dead ahead, then nudge the plane left before banking hard right around Rosslyn's skyscrapers.

Tonight it is wheels down in the murk. The altimeter spins rapidly -- 1,500, 1,400, 1,300 feet. Harenski nudges the jet left in the clouds -- 1,000, 900, 800 -- before it finally pops into the clear.

"Whoops, there's the USA Today Building!" Myers exclaims. The glass tower races by on the right, the altimeter reading 740 feet. Harenski banks hard. The 14th Street Bridge rushes up. He pushes the plane hard right again, skimming over the toy vision of a Metro train. "There's the damn runway!" the pilot says as he skirts around the corner and catches his first view. It looks very short. The plane lands quickly and hard with a burnt-rubber howl. Inside the cockpit a female-robot voice implores: "Speed brakes. Speed brakes."

Harenski lets his shoulders relax as he swings onto a taxiway. "Always a thrill," he says sardonically. But Myers, who learned to fly in the Navy, is juiced up. "Oh, I love it," the copilot exults. "It makes landing on a carrier seem like a piece

of cake."

Both pilots laugh. It is 11:45 at night, end of another day at the airport Washingtonians love to hate. WASHINGTON NATIONAL WAS BUILT IN 1941, AND IT WAS state of the art, a futuristic vision so enticing that 4 million people came out the first year just to look at it. An additional million came to fly. And what a joy it was. Shiny new DC-3s, the latest in two-propeller passenger aircraft, changed Washington life forever. With a 60-cent taxi ride, New York suddenly was 90 minutes away, the palm trees of Miami a mere seven hours. Even the terminal building had the look of romance and intrigue -- a place where Bogart might say goodbye to Bergman.

Fifty years later, an hour and a half remains decent time to New York and the old terminal still looks like a Bogart set, although Bogey would be stuck in traffic, shouting "Here's looking at you, kid" over a gridlock of honking cabs.

Now the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority is spending $735 million to bring the airport a little late into the jet age and make life a little easier for the 45,000 passengers who crowd in and out every day.

But even fancied up, with a high-tech terminal and a badly needed new road system, National will always be a down- town airport. One person's convenience will be another's lawn party ruined by the noise. Its skies will always be too crowded, its runways too short, its access roads too clogged, its roar too loud. But it will be handy.

And it will be romantic. At what other airport could noise create legends like this: At the height of the Vietnam War, the roar of the jets coming down the river jolted Lyndon Johnson out of cold-sweat nightmares, certain the White House was being bombed. Or so they say.

National remains the airport of choice for Washington's power structure. Dulles can sit out there in Chantilly, chumming up to the horse-country jet set and flaunting its Concordes and flights to the exotic corners of the world. But National remains the power place, the place you use when all you want is one more old-fashioned soybean subsidy. It serves the commerce of influence, the business of clout.

Until half a dozen years ago there still was occasional talk among the do-gooders about closing the place down. But in those days Congress ran National like its own back-yard strip. For the Hill's Tuesday to Thursday Club, the airport was an eight-minute drive to a congressional parking lot mere strides from the ticket counter. Congress was as likely to give that up as it was to turn in the free postage. It cut deals over National the way it sliced hometown pork.

Even when local control finally arrived in 1987, it came with one last deal. The new airports authority would raise millions to gussy the old girl up, making her impossible to jilt. The private parking lot would, of course, be maintained. Then Congress added one quick fillip to sweeten the deal. For

years, nonstop flights out of National were limited to 1,000 miles to hold down growth. The new limit would be 1,250 miles, which just happened to bring an important Texas city within range.

Not long after that, when the powerful speaker of the House fell from grace and returned home for the last time, folks at the airport knew one thing: Jim Wright would take National's brand-new nonstop to Fort Worth. ROACHES RUN, THE LITTLE Potomac River inlet bordering the north end of the main run- way, turns leaden in the first sullen light of day.

It is shortly after 5 a.m. as Tom Bussey, the airport's night operations officer, stops his white truck briefly near the water's edge.

On the other side, across from the airport, sits a small parking lot. The lot is a hot daytime attraction for local kids, who like to watch the big planes roar in and out almost close enough to touch. At night their older brothers and sisters turn it into a lovers' lane. Lately, it has become a place for drug handoffs. This morning the lot is occupied by a single car of inscrutable purpose.

In the half-light, other points of interest are the runway's elevated red-and-white ap- proach lights, which angle sharply to the left toward the unseen 14th Street Bridge, and the Washington Monument two miles straight ahead, its hazard lights flashing like two winking red eyes. The combination provides a vivid picture of the need for the last hard turn.

Tom Bussey speaks into his radio: "Tower? This is Ops-1 requesting permission to proceed down Runway 1-8." Permission granted, the operations officer turns his truck and slowly starts back down the runway toward the terminal area. Bussey is on dawn patrol, the favorite part of his job. In theory, problems with aircraft noise have placed National on a night curfew from 10 p.m. till 7 a.m. In reality, there are about 20 commercial flights during the curfew hours by newer, less-noisy jets. Still, the real action starts at 7 when the planes line up like racehorses at the starting gate. On patrol, Bussey looks for pieces of metal that fell off planes in the night and might be sucked up into engines during rush hour. He also looks for his pal.

"I bet you didn't know we had a little red fox living out here, did you?" he asks. "Well, we do. I think he's ground-controlled." There also are at least two families of stray cats and a handful of itinerant Canadian geese who appear bored and totally unimpressed by the little cannon that goes poof! poof! poof! in an attempt to drive them away.

Near the terminal area, the activity level picks up. So does the low drone of a jet engine, which draws Bussey's scrutiny. "That's Eastern," he says. "They must be testing every engine they've got."

So sensitive is National's noise problem that the airlines are required to call the operations officer before every engine test during the night curfew hours. Bussey then coordinates them to occur one at a time, and the nighttime rule is no revving beyond idle speed. If there's a foul-up, Bussey pays with calls from angry neighbors. "Everybody's got my phone number," he says. "I think it's written on the outhouse wall." He chuckles. "Sometimes they just want to talk. So I say, 'Oh, hi, Mary. Not sleepin' tonight, huh?' "

It's full daylight now, a soggy, overcast day. As the truck rounds the south end of the terminal building, it approaches an impressive array of corporate jets, and Bussey lets out a low whistle. Some of these go for as much as $20 million, he says, and he begins ticking off the makes -- King Air, Lear, Falcon, Gulfstream.

"Whoo-boy, there's some heavy lobbying going on in town today," he says. "This is megabucks. Whoo-boy, some pretty heavy lobbying indeed."

At the other end of the airport, at USAir's fancy new temporary terminal, the pace always quickens as the morning rush nears. Outside, the roadway is a kittywumpis tangle of cabs, buses and private cars with doors open, suitcases flying and people shouting. Everyone flooding into the terminal, men and women alike, wears a trench coat. The few coming out wear uniforms and caps and push handcarts with an artfulness that reveals years of training in collision avoidance.

Airport people call rush hour "the Chinese fire drill." Dave Varner, who flies often as a civilian employee of the Navy, buys that. He is sitting calmly in a plastic chair 25 minutes before his scheduled 7 a.m. departure to Boston on USAir 758. It should always be this way. Trying to catch a recent flight, Varner found traffic simply stopped on the bridge over the railroad tracks at Crystal City. He got out and sprinted the last mile.

Linda Gist, a much-traveled television consultant from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, rolls her eyes at National's ground congestion. "My only gripe about National," she says, "is that the only way to get here is to fly. It's easier to drive to La Guardia and fly down to catch your flight."

At the check-in line, which is growing long and restive, Helena Michie impatiently shifts her feet as the agent thumbs through her ticket. It is 6:52, and she too is trying to catch Flight 758 to Boston. Michie, 31, teaches English at Brandeis University and has classes this morning. Her husband, Scott Derek, who is standing nearby, teaches at George Mason University. They have a commuter marriage. Michie gets her ticket and spins away with a quick wave.

Derek watches his wife race off with a slightly amused look. He hates flying and sometimes opts for an eight-hour train ride on his weekend trips to Boston. "Trains hug the ground," he says. "I like that." Why does his wife fly? "She can't stand wasting time. Trains drive her crazy." At the top of the escalator, Michie's trench coat disappears around a corner. It is 6:55.

Down the way, in the control tower, Glen Hall is standing at what appears to be a 45-degree angle, stretching hard against his radio wire as he cranes to see all of the scene out the tower's sweeping windows. Hall is an air-traffic controller doing takeoff and landing clearances. Local control, they call him, and despite his body language and the appearance of chaos in front of him, he speaks calmly and soothingly, ending each transmission with, "Have a nice day."

"You talk nice to them," says Jim Ratkus, a supervisor standing nearby, "because the pilot is the boss and sometimes you have to talk him into doing things." Tensions can run high. Nearby, the controllers have posted a sign: "It Isn't Smart to Argue With a Fool; People Can't Tell Who's Who."

Six planes already have begun to taxi, two more have pushed back from their gates, and Hall's colleagues have given an additional 20 permission to push away. A 7 a.m. "departure" does not mean a 7 a.m. takeoff; it means a 7 a.m. chance to jockey for position. Pan Am is leading. USAir 758 has faded back in the pack.

Downstairs, around the corner from the radar room where more controllers are hunched over 10 large green screens, Robin Hartman sits alone in the cluttered weather station, intently watching the ceilometer. The ceilometer is a contraption that tells how far you can see straight up. In ceilometer lingo, 17 is 1,700 feet. W17X, however, means the cloud ceiling is at 1,700 feet but obscured by something like mist or falling rain. Hartman has been getting lots of W's and X's this morning, with readings going up and down like a yo-yo. By the end of the day the station will send the tower 32 "specials," or notifications of significant weather changes, making it the busiest weather day of the year. For now the ceilometer reads okay for takeoffs, marginal for landings.

Upstairs, the wall clock approaches 7, Hall's whining jets jockey in and out of half a dozen taxiways, his body tilt further defies gravity, his composure remains unruffled, his voice calm. "Have a nice . . ."

The whine explodes into a thunderous growl. Pan Am breaks first, rolling slowly, then more rapidly. The plane lifts off over Roaches Run, the left wing dipping into that first turn before disappearing in the mist. Thousands of Washingtonians bolt awake, as they do each morning.

"It was the most unforgiving alarm clock I've ever had," recalls Marilyn Adams, whose first apartment in Washington was a small efficiency apartment in Foggy Bottom in 1984. "Sometimes I would wake up a minute early and I would lie there waiting, watching the clock, my arms clutching each side of the bed." Then Adams, a newspaper reporter, got up and prepared for another day of work at the USA Today Building. But that's another part of the story.

The planes are taking off one a minute now, which gives them three miles' separation. In the cabin of USAir 758, Helena Michie fidgets impatiently and glances at her watch, a class to teach 403 miles away. Up front, the pilot, Hunt Harris, is impatient too. He glances out the window at the line of planes wedged in front of him: A Continental, a United, two other USAirs, an Eastern, another USAir. Gus Gladding, the copilot, is more laid-back. He uses the P.A. system to soothe the 131 passengers: Little busy this morning, folks; we're seventh in line for takeoff . . . third in line . . . next . . .

Then, at 7:33, Flight 758 is off too, all rumble and roar as it noses up, banks over the bridge, bulls into the clouds at 1,700 feet and climbs quickly away. Moments later, the plane breaks, whoosh, into brilliant morning sunshine. Both the noise and the weather are behind it now, and, in the silent swish of the cockpit, Gladding is whistling the theme from an old John Wayne flying movie, "The High and the Mighty." ON JANUARY 13, 1982, AIR FLORIDA'S FLIGHT 90 DIDN'T make it. Its wings fatally laden with ice, the Boeing 737 lumbered over Roaches Run, struggled mightily to clear the train and auto bridges at 14th Street, then stalled, its tail whipping through northbound auto traffic before pancaking into the frozen Potomac River. Seventy-four died in the plane and four on the bridge. Five survived in the river.

For days, the crash of Palm 90, as it became known to people who work at the airport, held Washington in morbid fascination. The drama led to the inevitable television movie -- and to more calls to close the airport as a hazard as well as an irritant.

When it comes to safety, National is a paradox. Surveys of pilots invariably rank it as one of the four or five "least safe" airports in the country, usually grouping it with other downtown airports with similar problems -- New York's La Guardia, unkindly nicknamed La Garbage; Boston's Logan, sometimes known as Boston's Lemon; San Diego's Lindbergh Field.

Right here, it needs to be said flatly that even Congress could not keep an unsafe airport open for 49 years; the ques- tion of safety is comparative and measured in very small numbers.

Still, some experts argue that National, built in a different era with different requirements, is inherently less safe than more modern airports. Its list of troublesome peculiarities is long.

Noise abatement procedures, designed to rattle less crockery in some of Washington's best neighborhoods, also limit a plane's maneuverability if it has problems on takeoff. National has three runways, but only one can handle commercial jets -- and it's one of the shortest main runways in the country. The twisting river route to the north is awkward, to say the least. The area is congested: The airspace of nine small airports, plus Dulles, Baltimore-Washington International and Andrews Air Force Base, adjoins National's space, and National air controllers handle the neighboring flights as they pass through.

And airports stimulate nearby development. Crystal City sprang up in the jet age. A row of new apartment buildings looms like a high-rise Berlin Wall along the western edge of the airport, the "NOW RENTING" banners legible enough that arriving passengers can take down the telephone numbers.

"If you get into trouble, there is just nowhere to go," says Wayne Grimes, a Washington-based USAir captain and 21-year veteran. "They want you to make that left turn right after takeoff. But if I got in trouble, I'd just go straight ahead. You bet I would."

Grimes says he would rather fly out of Dulles or BWI, where the runways are long and the spaces are more or less wide open. Still, he acknowledges the National paradox: "The airport has a great safety record."

The crash of Palm 90 was National's first and only fatal accident in the jet age. Federal safety officials laid official blame on two inexperienced young pilots unaccustomed to flying in snowstorms, exonerating the airport and its urban idiosyncrasies. National's only other major crash dates back to 1949, when a Bolivian Air Force fighter collided with an Eastern DC-4, killing 55 people.

But the reason most often cited for National's good safety record is not always reassuring to those who fly with wet palms.

"When you've got a bad intersection in town, and you know it, you're extra careful," shrugs Grimes. "Complacency is what causes accidents."

"It's challenging," says Ratkus, the air controller. "I don't find any pilots who are middling about National. They either love it because it's challenging or they hate it because it's challenging."

"It's a real thump and a heartbeat," says an American Airlines pilot who likes it but figures anonymity is his best job security. "National's fun. At other airports we sleep through some landings. That's when you make mistakes. This may be the safest airport in the country because we get so pumped up for it."

Ratkus and his controllers are trained in tea and sympathy for those less inclined toward the wing-and-a-prayer school, especially general-aviation pilots, who also use National and sometimes find it intimidating. "You can tell when someone is coming in scared," Ratkus says. "You're giving him instructions, and he's responding, 'Uh . . . uh . . . uh . . .' Right away, you know: I'm going to hold his hand all the way in." USAIR FLIES MORE FLIGHTS THAN ANY AIRLINE IN THE world except Aeroflot. Most of them are puddle-jumpers. So, in the cockpit of Flight 758, Hunt Harris is in a hurry. Before his day is over, he will fly from Washington to Boston to Portland, Maine, to Philadelphia and finally to West Palm Beach, Fla.

Moments ago, as he lost the daily 7 a.m. elbowing match on National's taxiways, Harris grumbled, "We'll be struggling to make up time all day long." Heading northeast into the rising sun, that is what he is doing. The schedule to Logan allots Harris one hour and 19 minutes, including ground jockeying. The actual flying time is 52 minutes, and he is trying to cut that, a tough job.

Even in the air, the route from Washington to Boston is not a straight line. Like a highway in the desert, it follows long straightaways and then zigs or zags without explanation around an angled corner. The computer says Harris can pick up one minute by calling for a "direct" -- cutting a corner here, rounding off a corner there. He gets the okay. He also gets permission to descend from 33,000 feet to 29,000, where he will cost USAir a few bucks in gas but cruise 10 knots faster, gaining another minute. He smiles in satisfaction over this successful manipulation of the system.

Then the radio rasps: "USAir 7-5-8, contact New York Center." Harris has cut into the "in trail" distance, the required 20-mile separation between 758 and the unhurried plane in front of him. The former Navy pilot frowns and shrugs. He slows down and loses his minute. So goes it in the modern world's crowded and not-so-wild blue yonder. A short time later, he is over the old white lighthouse at the entrance to Boston Harbor and dropping rapidly toward Logan. He lands 20 minutes late.

At the gate, Helena Michie rushes out with a black shoulder bag and a small suitcase, no baggage stop for her. Trench coat flying, she cuts through the crowds and races for the taxi stand and the long ride to Brandeis.

Back at National the fire drill is over. Traffic is moving so normally a woman in a silver Peugeot has double-parked to slow- ly kiss her husband goodbye. Once. Twice. Five times. No- body honks. It's almost Parisian.

Inside, just before 10 a.m., Freddy Graves pulls back the grillwork door to open the bar around the corner from the Delta ticket counter. Freddy has been tending bar at National since 1966 -- one year, he says impishly, before he turned 21. In the good old days he jawboned with Sam Ervin during Watergate and never forgot to put the ice in Bobby Kennedy's beer. The bar's official name is Anton's. The regulars call it Freddy's.

Before he has the door fully open, Freddy has his first customer. Dave Angell, a retired Air Force man from Bethesda, orders up a Bloody Mary. Angell, dapper in a lightweight yellow sweater, is on his way to Punta Gorda, Fla. The Bloody Mary is on its way to his wife. Retta Angell is not one to stand on ceremony. The sun may be nowhere near the yardarm, but the plane is near the gate. That's when she takes her Bloody Marys.

Like most bartenders, Freddy prides himself on knowing a little about everything and a lot about human nature ("In 25 years, I've never had to call a cop in here"). The only time he lost his temper was the awful day of Palm 90, when the liquor flowed freely and the humor turned black. Freddy didn't like that one bit. His wife is a flight attendant, and working at the airport is like working in a small town: "We felt like we lost some of the folks down the street."

There are 9,000 workers at National, including the flight crews based there. It has its own police and fire departments, its own banks and post office, doctors, nurses, barbers, social workers and insurance salesmen -- and, of course, its share of con men, pickpockets and, well, ladies of the night who also work days.

The community's grand old man is Rayfield Barber, a spry 76-year-old skycap who has worked here since Franklin Roosevelt dedicated the airport in 1941. He made $60 a month plus tips then and he makes $2.01 an hour plus tips now. Along the way, he put six children through school. Barber can regale you with stories about toting bags for Eleanor Roosevelt and Bess Truman. Or he can tell you about first-naming it with Clark Gable, Wallace Beery and Bob Hope.

Part of him yearns for the old days "when we knew the people and they knew us, and Captain Eddie Rickenbacker would come in and say, 'Rayfield . . .' " But part of him doesn't.

Back then flying was a white world. "Undertaker Ryan was the first black man I ever saw getting on an airplane with his own ticket," Barber says, and the words have an appropriately sour sound.

By 1948, Jackie Robinson, who had just integrated baseball, came through with his wife and asked Barber where the employees ate. "He didn't want a colored restaurant. So I showed him where we ate, and they had a screen separating the black and white sides. Didn't say a thing, but he wouldn't do it. Went out and bought a candy bar instead."

National changed at about the same pace everything else did. Now the airport manager, Gus Melton, is black and a 10-year veteran of the job.

In the middle of the main terminal, Louise Segaar stands at her outpost, watching. People don't line up to buy flight insurance at the Mutual of Omaha booth the way they did in the old days. But the booth remains the airport's premier people-watching spot. And Louise, after 28 years, is the premier people-watcher.

She can tell you about the time the policeman shot a prisoner trying to make a break for it during the Chinese fire drill. Awkward scene because they were still handcuffed to each other. Or the fellow who came out of the bar late, saw his plane boarding and made a beeline for it -- through the window instead of the gate. But her favorite story is about watching Ted Kennedy. continued on page 26

"I guess he doesn't want anyone to see him, poor man," Louise says. "So he walks with a newspaper so close to his nose you want to recommend an eye doctor. When he passes by, you see that his eyes are looking straight down at his feet so he can see where he is walking."

Then there is Ann Ingram, the resident good Samaritan who runs the all-volunteer Travelers Aid Society. "Sometimes people who travel get into trouble," she says. "Sometimes people travel to get out of trouble. We handle both." Like the case of the 89-year-old runaway who wanted to go to Los Angeles. Or the Spanish-speaking man who spent his last peso for a one-way ticket to a promised job in Washington. Problem was the job was in Seattle, Washington. Ann solved both cases. She couldn't solve the case of the destitute Republican.

"The man didn't look like much of a Republican," Ann says. "He was really down and out. But he got a ticket to Ronald Reagan's inaugural in the mail. Then he heard the president say on TV that he wanted everybody to come to the party. So he came. How he got the money for the airplane, I don't know. But he didn't have a dime when he got here. We had a terrible time. Politicians have better mailing lists than senses of humor, you know."

Just out the door, a few steps beyond United, sits the congressional parking lot. Because it's a Monday, early afternoon, the lot is still filled with the cars of the weekend warriors. It will start emptying this afternoon and be vacant by tomorrow morning, the beginning of another work week.

The license plates read like a See America travel guide -- New York 4C on a very impolitic blue Caddy, Florida Congressman 17, Arizona 3, New Hampshire dealer plates. Dealer plates? The Texas cars run large and American, the California small and Japanese, some sort of political commentary there. Just outside the Cyclone fence a late arrival provides a wonderfully unabashed picture of power, Washington-style. Texas 2, a blue Lincoln Continental convertible, is parked askew across two slots in the $20-a-day short-term lot. A D.C. parking ticket is wadded up on the dash.

Down the way, at the entrance to Butler Aviation, a white stretch limousine sits poised, the soft purr of its idling engine flaunting a different kind of power. Behind the terminal loom the gleaming corporate jets. In the waiting room sit several very bored men.

Suddenly, two immaculately dressed businessmen from Norfolk rush in from the runway, heads down, briefcases swinging in unison. They bolt out the door and into the limo. The bored men, pilots, barely look up. Here, power has reversed the roles: In this terminal pilots sit and wait while passengers scurry to and from the airplanes.

"It's like waiting in the dentist's office," says Jim Carney, chief pilot for a corporate-jet company in Pittsburgh. Carney and his copilot, Bill Parham, brought in two executives this morning. Sometime later this afternoon, after they have done their corporate deeds, the pilots will whisk them back.

Outside, the sun has broken through the clouds. But the limousine is stuck in traffic. Bad traffic. Dead-stop traffic that says power has its limits, that says the limo's occupants are about to get a free lesson in modern life: Even with all the fancy assists, National may be farther from Washington than Pittsburgh is from National.

Far up ahead, in a four-way intersection just above the hangar housing the Marriott flight kitchen, Officer David Byers, a former officer with the Charles County, Md., sheriff's office who joined the airport police force two years ago, bounces excitedly from leg to leg. One of his hands beckons desperately as he tries to extricate an 18-wheel delivery truck that backed up the hill and now is stymied in the intersection. The other windmills fruitlessly at four roads of stalled traffic.

The truck sits while the driver and the cop are assaulted by a cacophony of blaring horns and rasping curses hurled by cabbies in half a dozen sandpaper languages. Byers rolls his eyes toward the heavens: Seven more years, he seems to be saying, seven more years. MODERN AIRPORTS ARE DESIGNED IN somewhat the same manner as gambling casinos, with psychologists plotting ingenious ways to move mobs relentlessly toward the action. Color-coded entry ramps lead departing passengers to upper levels where the colors direct them to baggage deposit, ticket check-in, last-minute restrooms and security check and onto moving sidewalks that deposit them at their gate. Arriving passengers are moved quickly down one level into their own traffic flow where they follow different colors out.

People movers, from gliding sidewalks to subways, move them faster. Robot voices coax them to be good citizens or order them to be good sheep. Airport authorities in Atlanta discovered early that sweetness did not keep people moving. So they installed a Darth Vader voice on their subways that all but threatens rebels with bodily injury: STAND . . . BACK . . . FROM . . . THE . . . DOOR. It worked.

In Seattle, a woman's sensual voice directs arrivals toward the baggage area in both English and singsong Japanese. Once beyond baggage, however, where the airport wants to get rid of you quickly to cut down auto congestion, the voice turns guttural and Germanic. You might have 17 suitcases and two grandmothers. But you can't stay here. ACHTUNG! Get moving! FAST!

National, of course, has none of these modern amenities. The pictures of nearby hotels on the direct-dial accommodations board are as old as Dear Abby's. Today, after two weeks, they got the white courtesy phones working again. But the cash machines went out. Color coding, separate levels and robot voices do not move passengers in and out, with or without intimidation. Comers and goers simply charge around corners and collide.

Officer Byers, untangling the mess created by the errant 18-wheeler, is rolling his eyes for a couple of reasons. One, he knows the statistics: Every day 70,000 vehicles use National's five miles of narrow access roads. Put in terms used by people who find statistical monstrosities convincing: National gets nearly three vehicles every day for every foot of airport roadway. Byers also knows that it will be at least 1997 before the problems are fixed. Seven more years. Meanwhile, the mess will get messier.

Basically, in its $735 million renovation plan, the airports authority plans to tear down the old National and rebuild it. This is part of what is either already underway or on the planning boards:

NEW TERMINAL -- A new main terminal, with 35 airline gates, will be built north of the old terminal and opposite the Metro station. The location of the Metro station has always been one of those marvels of modern planning, depositing passengers, luggage and all, on the wrong side of one of the region's worst traffic jams and several hundred yards from the ticket counters. Skybridges, with moving sidewalks, will connect Metro with the new terminal.

NEW ROADWAYS -- Double-deck terminal access roads, one above to bring passengers in, the other below to take them out, should go some distance toward unsnarling problems like those caused by the circular monster now in front of the main terminal. The old roads have created a standing rule in more than a few Washington households: On arrivals at National, grandmothers and children under 12 get picked up; all others take a cab.

TAXI STAND -- National is a taxi airport. Because of its nearness, congestion, poor parking facilities and the oddball location of the Metro station, most airport users take cabs. The cabs, of course, have had nowhere to park except along the curb, where, during rush hour, they seem to back up halfway to Richmond, worsening the congestion. In the renovation, the cabs will get a two-story holding pen and be dispatched as needed.

There will be other improvements, including new parking areas. And one significant relic will remain.

The old main terminal, the building that so wowed them half a century ago with its promise of a wondrous new era, the building that still gives off an aura of Bogart-Bergman adventure/romance that robot voices and moving sidewalks never can replace, will be preserved for use by commuter airlines.

"Men went to war from that building," says James A. Wilding, general manager of the airports authority. "People went off to honeymoons. We have to preserve it. And, in a way, we are preserving it for its original purpose."

But at National there are some things that all the money in Washington can't change. The main north-south jetway was built on Potomac River landfill and cannot be lengthened. Nor does anyone plan to relocate the Washington Monument or the White House, so pilots still will turn hard left over the 14th Street Bridge on takeoffs.

And there will always be that notorious approach from the north, the river run. Some people, of course, love it. The sight of monumental Washington, unfolding suddenly in all its ceremonial panorama out those left-side window seats, is one of the great treats in a travel experience that generally isn't that much fun anymore.

"It's one of the reasons I like this airport," says Larry Bertolini, a Fairfax consultant who uses the airport regularly. "As many times as I've flown in, I still love the sight of Washington at night." Daniel Walsh, president of the Business Council of New York State, likes it best when "you can read the cornerstone on the Washington Monument."

There are, of course, other feelings, and that brings us back to the story of Rosslyn's 30-story glass tower, the USA Today Building.

It was a cloudy morning just after Christmas in 1982, and Tony Casale, director of research for the Gannett Co., remembers it well. Working then as a national editor for USA Today, Casale was sitting with his back to the windows in his 14th-floor office in the recently opened skyscraper.

"I heard this tremendous roar," he recalls, "and I turned around and my reporters were diving under their desks. All I could see out the window was the underside of a 727." Casale instructed his news clerk, Jack Kelly, to call the Federal Aviation Administration and report a close call.

The FAA and the owner of the Boeing jet, Piedmont Airlines, later downplayed the event. Crosswinds had forced the pilot to turn the plane's nose toward the build- ing, they said, but he never was off course. They blamed the anxiety at USA Today on depth-perception distortions and optical illusions caused by the low clouds.

The explanation was not very convincing to Casale, who is a pilot, or anyone else in the room. "It sounded like we might get hit," Casale says, "and it looked like we might get hit. Later, we heard rumors that he was below the roof level of the building and climbing. He definitely was giving it the gas." Nor was it reassuring that a few weeks earlier, during a Christmas party, he had met an airline pilot who asked where he worked. On hearing the answer, the pilot paused and said, "You're going to have a real close call one of these days."

Fifteen months later, after two more close calls in one week, the FAA modified the approach rules and added landing beacons to three of the Potomac bridges. A new minimum altitude of 720 feet also was ordered for aircraft as they pass the 390-foot building.

Six years later, pilots say the all-glass building is such a natural landmark they still use it as a guidepost for the twisting maneuver down the river. And folks who work there still say they would like to invite FAA officials over on a busy Friday afternoon to see how the government people would like the office space. THE AFTERNOON RUSH HOUR -- CHINESE fire drill No. 2 -- is nearing, and the surest sign is that the cab line stretches from the circular monster down past the Marriott kitchen, where Officer Byers finally has unsnarled the semi. The driver of the last cab in line is sound asleep, an Arabic-language newspaper tented over his face.

Cory Gates has just parked his car, having driven in from Falls Church to take over the weather station's swing shift. Gates marvels at the sunshine but shakes his head slightly. After a while in this business, you get a barometer in the bones. Gates can feel the sun won't last. His barometer is falling rapidly.

At Butler Aviation, Martha Thornton, a senior vice president at Ameritech in Chicago, hops out of a cab, briefly forgetting to pay. Despite the occasional ground hassles, she figures the corporate jet waiting at Butler saves her three to four hours, and time is money. On the runway, the engine whine already has begun; Thornton is an hour and 35 minutes from home. She will not endure a middle seat.

The congressional parking lot is beginning to empty out. Rep. Peter H. Kostmayer, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, opens the door of his little economy car for the quick spin back to the Hill. Kostmayer first came to Congress in 1976. He left briefly in 1980, courtesy of the Reagan landslide. After he made it back in 1982, he found these extended-weekend trips home a major political virtue. The airport, and the parking lot, became an indispensable part of his life.

"It's very convenient," the congressman says. "No doubt about it." Then he flashes a little smile. "The most convenient airport in the world if you're a member of Congress."

In the next parking lane, a woman is sliding into a large American car. Are you with a member of Congress? "Have been for 36 years," Joan Dixon, wife of the senior senator from Illinois, replies as she closes the door. She puts Illinois USS 1 into reverse, guns it and almost clips Kostmayer on the way out.

Cory Gates ignores the ceilometer. No problem there. In the weather station, one floor below the control tower, his eyes are glued to the radar. Outside, the ceiling is unlimited. Nothing but blue sky up there. But on his scope a big, ragged, orange blob is edging in from the west, a major spring storm about to hit Dulles and moving in a direct line toward National. Wind shear, hail, lightning. All those springtime nasties. The warnings are going out: This could be a big one, arriving just before the end of the fire drill.

The scene at the main terminal's circular monster has turned tense but not yet hostile. Cars maraud around the circle, dodging each other and orange construction cones, darting into openings. Cops, ticket books in hand, argue with cabbies: "Come on! Move it!" But the weather remains springtime balmy. An executive meanders into the terminal, eating popcorn. A man in silver Adidas and sweat pants is tuned in to his own world, his Walkman moving him blissfully in an arm-swinging, path-clearing bounce.

On his radar Gates watches the storm hit Dulles, which will get 1.16 inches of rain in an hour and close down. He passes the information upstairs to the air-traffic controllers whose chore will be to deal with the pilots when the storm hits National. Computer printouts of the weather report have made it to every cockpit by now. But not everyone reads signals the same way. That makes the controllers' job an art form.

The first big splats of rain hit the windshield of USAir Flight 420 as it taxis away from the terminal just after its scheduled 6:45 departure for Charlotte. The pilot, Jeff Wright, has the weather report on his lap and knows he isn't going anywhere.

"Just tell us where you want us to park," Wright radios Larry Smith, the controller who will take most of the pres- sure during the approaching storm. Smith, a calm, veteran controller, is working what is called ground control. In effect, he is the airport's traffic cop, directing the planes around the taxiways and runways before takeoff. Smith sends Wright to the southwest corner of the airport -- "Just keep turning right" -- and soon Wright's aircraft is surrounded by many other planes, parked at odd angles. The sky blackens. The rain arrives in sheets.

Wright's copilot, Larry Stone, gets on the P.A. to tell the 108 passengers they are facing at least a 45-minute delay while the storm blows through. An hour passes. Some flights have taken off but none that would fly west through the storm, Flight 420's route. By now, almost 20 planes are parked in logjam disorder in the far corner of the airport, and some of the pilots are getting antsy.

A United pilot calls the tower for permission to push away from the gate.

"I'm running out of parking space out there," Smith radios back.

"Lot of uncomfortable passengers in here," United pleads.

"Sorry, no room to park."


"Do you have a time honest {for takeoff}?" the United pilot asks.


"If you want to, we'll give clearance to anyone who wants to take off in this stuff," the controller replies.

The radio breaks up in a babble of competing voices. "I wouldn't take off in this crap on a bet," Wright says in an aside to Stone. Lightning flashes. "I got too many years to go. We can sit here till tomorrow."

On the radio, one United pilot advises another: "What they're saying is you're the pioneer."

"Yeah," interrupts someone else, "we need a pioneer."

"To hell with pioneering," says Wright. "All the pioneers are dead." Then he turns his head: "You like WMAL? Maybe we can get a traffic report." He laughs. Music fills the cockpit. More minutes pass. An Eastern pilot calls from his gate:

"If we push off now, how many planes will be in front of us?"

"You push off now, we'll give you clearance to go."

"Uhhh, I think we'll wait a while."

Wright cracks up. "Oh, that was funny!"

The lightning grows brighter, the rain harder. Good signs. The storm's center is moving through, and a takeoff to the west will pass through the edge. Continental goes first and reports back in a Texas cowboy voice: "Light chop, moderate rain and a lot of lightning on takeoff." Stone groans. "Doesn't sound like fun to me." But it's time to go. At 7:55, they crank up the engines again. It's another 35 minutes before Flight 420 is at the foot of the runway, a conservative 10th or so in the long line of delayed planes.

The tower sends its final message: "Depart via the Washington 3-2-8 radial" -- up the river. Rolling. Liftoff. Wheels up. Hard left over the bridge. Lightning to the right. Three thousand feet, 4,000, 5,000, broken clouds racing at the windshield and then a jet-black moonless night of a million stars.

Stone is on the P.A. system: "Well, folks, we might have gotten out a few minutes earlier. You probably saw others taking off. But we felt it was safer to wait a while longer."

Wright smiles. "What he means," the pilot says in another aside, "is that we're a couple of pussycats."

Out the window to the east, the storm stretches as far as the eye can see in a hell's-a-poppin' display of fireworks that looks more like a war front than a storm front. The copilot whistles. "You won't have any trouble convincing anyone on the left side that it was worth the wait," he says.

Meanwhile, Mother Nature's eerie byproduct of electrical storms, Saint Elmo's fire, is doing a fiery dance around the rim of the windshield. IT'S ALMOST MIDNIGHT. JOE HARENSKI and Tom Myers, the former Navy pilot who likes National because it reminds him of carrier landings, have just finished their murky river run -- deep in the clouds 3,000 feet over "the rope factory," wheels-down over the reservoir, breaking into the clear at 740 feet across from the USA Today Building, hard right around the Rosslyn skyscrapers, hard right again over the bridge and: "Speed brakes. Speed brakes."

In their Douglas MD-80, one of the new "quiet" jets permitted to land at National after curfew, the pilots are taxiing toward the terminal. It's the end of another day at Washington's downtown airport, and for the pilots as well. But the two men are still pumped up, full of exuberant pilot talk, a brief fallback to "the right stuff" in an age that prefers "leave the driving to us."

"Whoo, that was some romp down the river," Harenski exclaims.

"Yeah, I've never seen the USA Today Building pop out that way before," Myers replies. "We just sort of whippoorwilled around it."

And they love you for it, Tom. They love you. Liza Mundy contributed to the reporting of this article.