Planners shaping the mission and content of a new Patuxent River Naval Air Museum envision a facility that "will be a gateway to the base and the community," said project director Gary V. Hodge.

The museum would be a place where visitors could use a high-tech simulator to "land" a jet on the deck of an aircraft carrier or view exhibits on the whole sweep of Navy aviation history.

Members of a committee that has been working on the current proposal since 1997 also want the museum and visitors' center, with the cooperation of other historic sites and facilities, to tell the story of Southern Maryland's four centuries of history since colonists arrived from Europe.

The project will cost about $11 million to build, Hodge said. The money will come from a variety of state and local sources. The Maryland Department of Transportation has pledged $2 million for land, and $4 million in additional state funds would go toward construction. St. Mary's County government has been asked to commit $2 million to the project, and $3 million will be sought through a private fund-raising effort.

Hodge said planners will request $500,000 for architectural planning and design work from the state during the coming session of the General Assembly. The project schedule calls for construction to begin in 2001, with the first phase of the project opening in 2003.

During a second phase, a briefing center may be added that could host visitors and dignitaries expected at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station once testing of the new Joint Strike Fighter being sought by the Pentagon begins. Hodge said he and others working on the museum project are exploring federal funding possibilities for such a center.

Developing the project has been a partnership that has included the air station, the museum association, the state Transportation Department, county government and the planning committee.

CAPTION: Museum planners foresee interactive exhibits on Navy aviation history as well as Southern Maryland history.

CAPTION: Plans call for a theater as well as a simulator with which visitors could "land" a jet on an aircraft carrier.