Muriel McCabe returned yesterday to the Manassas Municipal Airport, which resembled an upended children's toy box, with 1,600-pound Cessnas and Pipers strewn about in every direction.

McCabe was at the municipal airfield Tuesday night, preparing to take off in her Piper Cherokee 180, when she noticed a storm approaching.

"It seemed like a normal thunderstorm," McCabe, a Warrenton resident, said yesterday, "then all of a sudden this huge rain came down, and I looked out of the window and a Cessna was sitting up in the air on its nose."

McCabe and a companion sat in the plane's cockpit for a short time while planes around them were being yanked from tie-downs and, in some cases, flipped over. When the winds abated, the two ran to a nearby truck and drove to safety.

The National Weather Service said yesterday that the storm was actually a small tornado, with winds estimated at up to 70 miles hour. The twister is thought to have touched down three times at the airport, a weather service meteorologist said, and cut a swath a half-mile long and 1,500 feet wide.

Fifty-two planes were damaged, including about 20 that were flipped over, and two steel doors were ripped off one hangar at the airfield, a private facility that is home to about 350 aircraft, most of them single-engine planes, according to airport employes. One minor injury was reported.

The tornado swooped down shortly after 8 p.m.

"It just hit," said Norman Dickinson, an employe of Dulles Aviation Inc., a private company, who was putting an airplane in its hangar at the time. "The doors on the hangar started flapping around and one airplane was bouncing up and down. One of the {plane} owners was there, and he said, 'Oh, my God.' "

Joseph Gardner, another employe of the firm who saw the twister touch down, said: "There was a rumbling sound, like a freight train going by . . . . It was amazing. One plane was on its right wing, spinning like a top."

The cyclone was the latest local manifestation of a five-day-old heat wave scorching the southeastern United States from Iowa to Florida and Texas to Pennsylvania.

Yesterday's high at National Airport was 98 degrees, recorded at 4 p.m., according to the Weather Service. Although the thermometer did not break 100 degrees, as it did on Tuesday, nor break the July 22 record of 103 degrees, set in 1936, it was still plenty hot. And forecasters said the heat will continue, with temperatures expected to be in the mid- to high 90s today and tomorrow.

Marc Woolverton, a spokesman for Manassas police, said the tornado cut across the airport in a southeasterly direction, then came back toward the northwest.

Officials said that although the twister completed its destruction in seven to 10 minutes, it would take several days to determine how much damage was done. Preliminary estimates were that damage could run to more than $500,000.

Private cleanup crews were on the scene yesterday with a large crane to remove the two large steel doors that were stripped from one hangar. Others worked at righting the overturned aircraft and checked the planes' fuel lines.

The Manassas Fire Department and airport personnel had placed sand on about 500 gallons of fuel that had leaked from the planes in scattered amounts, Woolverton said.

About 30 minutes before the twister landed Tuesday night, the Weather Service warned that strong winds and hail might occur in the area. However, a small tornado was an unexpected phenomenon, meteorologist Jack Ernst said.

Tornadoes, created by a clash of descending cool air and rising hot air, are rare on the eastern seaboard, according to the Weather Service. Virginia experiences an average of six tornadoes a year, Maryland usually records three and the District none.