SALISBURY, MD. -- Ken Malcomson, who runs an air charter business on the Eastern Shore, likes to walk into the Flight Service Station at the Salisbury-Wicomico County Airport, talk to a Federal Aviation Administration specialist about weather along his route and file his flight plan in person.

Malcomson says he does not like the FAA's intention of closing the station and forcing him to confer instead with a computer in Leesburg.

"Automation could never be as efficient or as safe as a human being on the airfield," said Malcomson, one of many Eastern Shore pilots and local officials who recently won a temporary reprieve for the Salisbury station.

The fight at Salisbury, waged with high-flying rhetoric and high-pressure politics, is being replayed across the country as the FAA proceeds with its $478 million national program to modernize, computerize and consolidate Flight Service, the part of the air traffic system that advises private pilots and other owners of small aircraft.

An average of 134,000 small plane flights seek FAA help nationwide each day, and many already rely on newly opened computerized centers. Critics, supporters and FAA employes agree that the start-up problems at Leesburg and other automated stations nationwide include:Lost flight plans because of computer programming errors.

Telephone systems that put pilots on hold for as long as 30 minutes and then cut them off to avoid tying up lines.

Programming that has resulted in flight specialists taking more time to do with a computer the same job they used to do manually.

Windowless weather reports. The new automated facilities come without windows, so specialists can't look outside. Those in Leesburg rely on a computer in Kansas City to provide weather data that may be an hour old.

FAA critics contend that the traditional Flight Service Station is not only important for local economies, but is also much safer for small aircraft.

The plan to close the stations is "unsafe; it's a scandal," said John L. Baker, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), a lobbying group for private aviation. "It's just a total disaster."

Caught in the middle is Congress, which first approved and funded the program, then slowed it down in response to pressure by pilots, who constitute a vocal, well-financed and politically sophisticated community. Not only that, a number of members of Congress hold pilots' licenses.

Since 1980, when the Flight Service modernization program began, the FAA has cut the number of Flight Service Stations from 318 to 217. As stations are shut down, the agency is consolidating its employes and equipment in 61 "automated" stations, 44 of which are in operation.

If the Salisbury station had closed Sept. 30 as the FAA planned, Eastern Shore pilots would have had to call the new station at the Leesburg Municipal Airport, spend as long as 40 minutes listening to recorded music and then listen to a recorded menu of available recorded messages before reaching a live FAA expert.

"I don't like it. It's terrible," said Byron Moe, a flight instructor who calls the Leesburg station from the Prince George's County Airpark. "A verbal explanation is not as good as seeing the charts."

Another problem with the national modernization program is acute staffing shortages. The problem is so severe that the FAA operates 70 of the old stations on an "emergency part-time" basis, which means that if someone is sick or on vacation, the station must shut down.

Private pilots love to tell the story about the station in Pine Bluff, Ark., that was shut down for months while the sole employe was on maternity leave.

FAA officials and some members of Congress contend that many of the early kinks have been worked out. Congressional sources said that a forthcoming General Accounting Office report is expected to show that most pilots are generally satisfied with the automated service.

"We're over the hump now" technically, said Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (D-Calif.), chairman of the aviation subcommittee of the House Committee on Public Works and Transportation. "The unanswered question is whether we are over the hump politically."

AOPA, the pilots association, continues to get complaints about the automated stations, Baker said. "It's a moving battle. We're going to continue to harass them," he said of Congress and the FAA.

"I think we've won," Rep. Roy Dyson (D-Md.) said of the FAA's decision to postpone closing the Salisbury station. "But the war is not over yet," he said of his intention to fight the FAA's plan to close the station once Leesburg is fully equipped and staffed.

The fight over the Salisbury station illustrates the conflict between national and local interests, and the intense political warfare being waged over a relatively obscure program.

FAA officials argue that when it is completed, the Flight Service automation program will provide pilots with better information at lower cost to the taxpayers than the old method. The new computers will provide information 24 times faster than the old Teletype machines, clearer weather pictures than the old paper charts, and telephone links to pilots over a larger region, they say.

"We're trying to bring them into the 21st century," said Norbert A. Owens, the FAA's deputy associate administrator for air traffic.

Owens said that 95 percent of the pilots already use the telephone to get Flight Service weather information and flight advice.

As for those who are accustomed to a familiar face, Owens said that "in the 1980s and 1990s, frankly, we can't afford that kind of personalized service."

At the Salisbury airport, however, manager Mark Paul Brewer said, "What comes up on the computer is not necessarily what's happening here . . . . I doubt the individuals at Leesburg, as qualified as they are, will ever be that intimate with the Salisbury area."

Dyson said the FAA's presence boosts the airport's status, and the airport is critical to attracting business to the Eastern Shore. "Any diminishment {of the airport} hurts economic development," he said.

Dyson, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said he told Reagan administration officials not to expect his continued support for their defense and foreign policy if they close the station.

"I said, 'Keep it open or don't ask me for anything . . . . I've been helping you out, now you help me.' "

The FAA planned to close 55 of the old stations this year, but congressional objections limited the closings to 44. Congress passed legislation preventing the agency from closing four stations and "intense political pressure" persuaded the agency to leave open seven others, including Salisbury, Owens said.

"What it comes down to is that those with the strongest political allies are the ones who are going to maintain their Flight Service Station," Brewer said.

AOPA and the union representing the Flight Service specialists say they support the idea of modernizing equipment, but charge that the FAA has bungled the project so badly that the skies are unsafe for the small aircraft that rely on the service.

The pilots were angered when the FAA started closing the old stations before the new ones were working properly, Baker said. Although many bugs have been worked out, the staffing shortages and initial computer glitches caused such frustration that some pilots have given up on Flight Service and are flying without vital information about weather and other flight conditions, Baker said.

"Aviation safety is being very seriously compromised," said Bruce B. Henry, president of the National Association of Air Traffic Specialists.

The current $478 million cost estimate is an upward revision from the $453 million originally envisioned; the completion date has been moved to 1994, from the original target of 1991.

The Flight Service modernization project is one of several FAA programs financed by the aviation trust fund, which comes primarily from an 8 percent tax on airline tickets plus taxes paid by private aviation.

"All of the promised benefits have disappeared," Baker said. "It would have been cheaper to leave it the way it was, and the service would have been a helluva lot better."