With arms raised and palms open in his now familiar greeting, Pope John Paul II stepped from a TWA jet at Andrews Air Force Base at 10:45 yesterday morning from Chicago to discover a sparkling, sunny day and close to 12,000 well-wishers cheering him into Washington.

His face ruddy and beaming in the crisp air, the pope responded briefly to a welcome from Vice President Mondale, then plunged away from his podium and scarlet carpet to bless and clasp hands with the thousands who chanted and cheered and pressed against the airstrip fence for a glimpse of him.

"May the blessings of Almighty God descent in abundance on all the people of this nation's capital," he told the crowd.

The pope drew a delighted roar from the crowd when he diverged from his printed remarks to greet "in a particular way the citizens of Maryland."

Later, as he strolled along the fence, exuberant members of the crowd tossed flowers at his feet, clambered by the dozen atop portable bathrooms to wave, and held mirrors up to catch his reflection.

The pope clasped and lifted children who scrambled past his body guards, greeted and thanked an airline stewardess who promptly burst into tears, and shook hands with the Navy band conductor. Then he climbed into a Marine helicopter for the short flight to Washington as the strains of "God of Our Fathers" rang out.

Although the pope extended special greetings to pmaryland citizens, the surging crowd pressing to touch him was drawn from around the country.

"He's fantastic, he's a superstar," said Ted Keliner, who drove with his family from Pittsburgh to see the pope. "It makes the tears come just to be here."

Vivian Schreiner, her husband and son flew from Honolulu on Thursday "just to see the pope," she said. They had camped out at the airbase terminal beginning at 6 a.m. to ensure getting a good position along the fence. "It was expensive but well worth it," Schreiner said after the pope had left.

Wanda and Taduesz Hamaluk of Newington, Conn., drove to Washington on Friday with their handmade Polish banner after torrents of rain and numerous umbrellas blocked their view of the pope in Boston. Because they did not reach the airstrip until 9 a.m., when all the good vantage points were taken, they were frustrated again yesterday morning.

"We will go to the White House today, and to the Mall tomorrow," Wanda Hamaluk said. "So maybe one day we'll see him."

Mondale's address was eloquent. "You have unleashed the best and most generous sentiments within us," he told the pope, as Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, Residential adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and Cardinal William Baum of Washington looked on. "You have truly touched our nation's soul. . .and now you will grace our nation's capital."

The pope spent less than 20 minutes on the Andrews airstrip yesterday morning. Even past noon -- long after he had left -- the people lingered, exchanging Polaroid photographs, gathering around radios and television sets, and jubilantly recounting quick glimpses and touches.

Only Archbishop William Borders of Baltimore was there to represent Maryland. Gov. Harry Hughes, preoccupied with the controversial tank farm containing deadly chemicals in Sharptown, canceled his plans to come only 15 minutes before he was due to arrive. Prince George's County Executive Lawrence Hogan also stayed home.