Which of the following area airports had the most airplanes taking off or landing last year?

(a) Dulles International.

(b) Manassas Municipal.

(c) Andrews Air Force Base.

The answer is (b), Manassas Municipal, where it is so crowded on weekends that officials have counted as many as 80 takeoffs and landings in one hour from the field's only runway. That's more than one operation a minute, and there isn't even an air traffic control tower.

In fact, two-thirds of the planes that took off and landed at Washington area airports in 1977-including Washington National, Dulles International and Baltimore-Washington International-were "general aviation" aircraft, ranging from small single-engine planes to costly high-performance corporate jets.

In the United States, general aviation planes out number commercial airliners by 200,000 to 2,500, or a ratio of 80 to 1. Because of these numbers-and the mid-air collision between a private plane and a jetliner that killed 144 people in San Diego last Sept. 25-an enormous argument about how to improve the safety of flight has erupted between the Federal Aviation Administration and the general aviation community.

The FAA wants to impose stricter controls on planes around major airports and at high altitudes. Its aim is to reduce the likelihood of collisions, particularly those involving commercial airliners carrying hundreds of people.

The general aviation community has mounted a counterattack and has inundated the FAA with more than 40,000 letters, most of them from angry pilots. It is the largest number of letters the FAA has ever received on any subject.

"It's hard to know where public opinion really lies on this," FAA Administrator Langhorne Bond said recently."We never hear from the 200 million airline passengers." Bonds proposals do have public support of three important associations, however-the Air Line Pilots Association, Air Transport Association [which represents the commercial airline industry] and the Airline Passengers Association.

Leading the charge against Bond's plan is the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), which owns a large building in downtown Bethesda and has more than 227,000 members and a budget for all of its activities this year of$9 million.

In the annual report to his members, AOPA President John L. Baker wrote, "All of us in aviation were taken aback by the savage public reaction to the situation in which the Cessna 172 (the small plane in San Diego) was run down from behind and struck by a Pacific Southwest Airways Boeing 727."

Regardless of fault, the Cessna 172 contained two people, both of whom died, and the PSA Boeing 727 carried 135 people, all of whom died. There were seven fatalities on the ground as the wreckage of the two planes churned through the North Park section of San Diego.

The National Transportation Safety Board decided last week that the primary blame for the accident rested with the flight crew of the PSA jetliner for failing to keep the Cessna in sight. Air traffic control procedures were listed by the board as a contributing cause.

Bond himself has said there were "discrepancies" in the air traffic control procedures surrounding the disaster. Sixteen changes are scheduled for the air traffic controllers' handbook as a result of the accident.

In addition to looking at the San Diego accident specifically, however, Bond ordered an analysis of the entire air traffic system, he said, "to assure greater protection . . . in the airspace regions most commonly used by passenger-carrying aircraft."

The purpose of Bond's proposal, he said, is to make certain that an airplane is separated by the air traffic control system from every other airplane every inch of the way from takeoff to landing. That can happen only if the air traffic controller knows the position and the intention of every airplane in his given area. For him to know that, all pilots flying in his area must "talk" to the air traffic control system.

Many general aviation pilots don't want to be bothered, and in most parts of the country and at most low altitudes they don't have to be bothered. They look out for themselves.

Today, submission to air traffic control in mandatory for all commercial airliners, for all planes of any stripe flying above 18,000 feet and for all planes flying below 7,000 feet as they descend to or climb from only 21 major airports. There is a gap in the area of mandatory control between the 7,000-foot top of the 21 "terminal control areas" and the 18,000-foot floor of the high-altitude control area.

Bond would eliminate that gap by lowering the floor of the high-altitude control area and by raising the ceiling of the terminal control area to touch it. He would add 44 big-city airports, including San Diego, to the list of 21 in "terminal control areas" and thus extend protection to the passengers flying into most big-city airports in the United States.

If Bond's plans are approved, Dulles and Baltimore-Washington International would join Washington National in this region to form a huge terminal control area. The top of that giant area, between 7,000 and 10,000 feet and well above the normal altitude for most small planes, could cover almost 10,000 square miles. It could stretch from Fredericksburg on the south to just above the Maryland-Pennsylvania border on the north; from the Delaware-Maryland border on the east to the Shenandoah Valley on the west.

Nationally, the proposal would reduce the number of airports that the small-plane weekend pilot could just drop in on without bothering to tell anybody. Instead, he would have to file a flight plan and follow air traffic control instructions. In many cases he would have to buy extra equipment for his plane so it could "talk" automatically to the FAA's air traffic computers.

The letters to the FAA from pilots are full of comments claiming the proposed rules are unnecessary and too costly and a further intrusion of federal regulators on individual freedoms. They read, in spirit and tone, like a National Rifle Association attack on gun control legislation.

An article in AOPA's magazine, AOPApilot, is headlined "The Government's Major Airspace Grab," and warns, "You won't be able to get from here to there as easily nor as often if the FAA has its way."

Since pilots will be forced to file flight plans, "the system will be swamped," AOPA's Baker warned in an interview. "Then some genius down there at [FAA] will figure out there are too many airplanes. His solution: ban them. Banned will be general aviation. That scares me."

Bond said that, if his proposal will result in delays to aviation generally, "we won't implement it."

The furor has forced a delay in Bond's plans. He had said originally that the new regulations would begin to take effect in June. Now, the FAA's timetable is uncertain, but late summer to early fall would be the earliest possible date.Further, Bond said, "I would be astonished if we did'nt change anything [in the proposal]. I value the opinions of the general aviation Community."

Six floors down from Bond's office, former air traffic controller Dave Hodge, now a bureaucrat, is planning the details of how more control would work. There will be accommodations, he said, for general aviation airports such as Manassas. Special groups, such as glider pilots and parachutists, will not be unduly burdened.

Nonetheless, he said, the best way to separate airplanes from each other is to talk to them.

"If you're not talking to one of 'em," Hodge said, "you're playing a game of roulette. I know it's an offensive thing to private aviation pilots because I'm one of them. But you can't move umpteen hundred thousand people a day safely and let everybody fly where they want to fly." CAPTION: Picture 1, Small planes seem dwarfed by 747 at Dulles, but outnumber airliners by 80 to 1 in the nation. By John McDonnell-The Washington Post; Picture 2, Washington area's busiest airport is Manassas Municipal, with 196,000 takeoffs and landings a year. By James A. Parcell-The Washington Post