Francis W. Reichelderfer, 87, a retired chief of the old U.S. Weather Bureau and a former Naval officer who pioneered in weather forecasting for the use of aviation, died of a heart attack Jan. 26 at his home in Washington.

Dr. Reichelderfer was appointed head of the weather bureau by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938. At that time, the agency had a budget of $4.7 million and 1,650 employes. When he retired in 1963, it had a budget of $60 million and 6,530 employes.

The bureau collected data from ground observations and from satellites in outer space, from planes, ships, balloons and radar, and processed it with some of the world's most advanced computers. It had become the most sophisticated national meteorological service in the world.

"You presided over the evolution of meteorology and weather forecasting from an art to a science," President John F. Kennedy said in a letter to Dr. Reichelderfer on his retirement. "I know that a man of your vigor and ability will continue to serve the world with distinction, and in doing so to serve the nation."

For himself, Dr. Reichelderfer maintained that there always was an element of guess work in figuring out whether it would rain or shine.

"You can't last long unless you recognize that it is just impossible to predict the weather as accurately as the public really needs," he said in an interview with The Washington Post in 1963. "This is simply another reason for research."

Dr. Reichelderfer was born in Harlan, Ind. He graduated from Northwestern University, which later conferred on him an honorary doctorate. He joined the Naval Air Service in World War I because he wanted to fly. He was assigned to meteorological work. He earned his pilot's wings in 1919, but forecasting the weather became his career.

Shortly after the war, Dr. Reichelderfer became aware of early studies by Jack Bjerknes, a Norwegian scientist, on frontal systems and how masses of air react to each other. He introduced these techniques into the Navy to help flyers and those who went up in balloons and other lighter-than-air craft. The doctor himself took part in balloon races and made several flights aboard the Hindenberg dirigible. He was assigned to the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst, N.J., at the time the Hindenberg burned and crashed on May 6, 1937.

He held the rank of commander in the Navy when Roosevelt named him head of the weather bureau. Before leaving the service, he had earned a master's degree at the University of Bergen in Norway, where he studied the work of Bjerknes. One of his first objectives at the weather bureau was to bring this knowledge into active use in the agency and to improve the training of bureau personnel.

With the advent of World War II, more and better information was needed to carry out military operations and accommodate the sudden increase in aviation that was part of the defense effort.

For civilians as well as the military, Dr. Reichelderfer expanded the service's hurricance forecasting. He instituted telephone forecasts, crop forecasts for farmers, frost warnings for citrus growers, marine forecasts and hourly reports for aircraft. One of the most significant advances during his government service, Dr. Reichelderfer said, was the orbiting of the Tiros I weather satellite.

After his retirement, Dr. Reichelderfer was a consultant to the World Meteorological Organization, of which he had been president.

His honors included meritorious service medals from the Department of Commerce and the Air Force and decorations from the American Meteorological Society and the governments of Japan, Chile, Cuba and Peru. He was the author of numerous technical papers.

His wife, Beatrice, died in 1975.

Dr. Reichelderfer's survivors include a son, Bruce A., of Smith Mountain Lake, Va., and two grandchildren.