The fighter jocks flying the hottest planes in the sky, the ones who would go to war first, cannot figure out how Washington can be so damn dumb.

To them, all this hollering over registration and the draft is like swatting at the flies rather than attacking the manure pile, to use a famous expression from one of their former leaders, Gen. Curtis E. LeMay.

The big problem in today's military, according to the pilots of Langley Air Force Base, is not recruiting or drafting new bodies -- although they favor this -- but holding onto the men and women with "the right stuff" already in uniform.

"I feel unappreciated, taken advantage of," said Capt. William R. Looney III, expressing the hurt felt by the proud men who are pilots. "I'm disappointed in my countrymen. Tomorrow I could die. The American civilian leadership doesn't appreciate I'm doing that for them."

Pentagon statistics and surveys document that thousands of young pilots such as Looney are fed up with losing money to inflation year after year as the commander-in-chief caps their pay and civilian workers get big raises.

So many pilots are quitting in protest that both the Air Force and Navy fear they will not have enough to man all their warplanes. The Air Force figures it will be 2,400 pilots short this fiscal year, 3,500 next year and 4,000 the year after -- unless pay and other benefits are improved dramatically. The Navy needed to retain 58 percent of its young pilots this year but now estimates it will hold only 28 percent of them.

The Air Force says it costs $900,000 to train just one pilot in the sophisticated tactics needed to win dogfights against Russians flying modern planes. But this expensive training makes the pilot highly saleable to commercial airlines and other civilian firms willing to pay twice as much as the military.

Today's jet pilot is a different breed from the storybook one, the hard-drinking swashbuckler of Pappy Boyington fame. He has at least one college degree, often two. He talks and thinks like an engineer, or else he does not survive modern weapons. And like everyone else, he worries about buying a home and putting aside enough money for his children's education.

He is hard to replace. Neither registration nor the draft would close the pilot gap. That is why Gen. Lew Allen, Air Force chief of staff, and Adm. Thomas B. Hayward, chief of naval operations, are more worried about keeping the good people they have than finding new bodies.

The squadron commanders who would have to lead their pilots to war, like Lt. Col. Ralph Wetterhahn of the 71st Eagle squadron here, see concentrating on retention as a matter of common sense.

"It's a whole lot cheaper to keep one guy from going out the back door than to try to take in three or four others through the front door to replace him," Wetterhahn reasoned. Safer, too.

His squadron flies the hot F15 Eagle fighter under the motto: "Our mission is to fly, fight and win." The word "win" is underlined. Living or dying in today's air battles depends on decisions made in seconds high above the earth. Inexperienced pilots die quickly.

"We can draft people until we're blue in the face, bring them in for two years, and they roll out after two years," said Vice Adm. George E. R. Kinnear II, commander of the Navy's Atlantic fleet warplane squadrons. "But that doesn't do anything to build up the skilled manpower who take five or six years to train."

It is young pilots with six to 11 years service -- the ones especially attractive to airlines and other civilian employers -- whom the Air Force and Navy are losing at an alarming rate.

Why would these pilots trade whirling around the sky at 1,000 miles an hour in fighter planes which cost $15 million to $25 million each for the comparatively dull life of civilian jobs? A group of them gathered to explain it at the building just off the airfield here used by the 94th "Hat in the Ring" squadron. Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker made the squadron famous during World War I. The original squadron's stone "Hat in the Ring" symbol -- mounted in 1918 on the 94th's operations building in Toul, France -- now marks the entrance to squadron headquarters.

The pilots in the lounge wear red or blue turtleneck jerseys under their flying suits.They begin with niceties and move quickly to anger -- anger focused on Washington. Why does Washington care so much about draft legislation and "real growth" in the $158 billion Pentagon budget? Why does it care so little about "real growth" in the pilots' $24,000 paychecks?

The outrage is as visible in their conversation as the contrails from their F15 Eagles against a morning sky.

"A lot of people have this money problem," continued Capt. Looney, 30, native of Norman, Okla., an Air Force Academy graduate who also has a master's degree in management from the University of Michigan.

"It's not like we're saying poor Air Force officer, poor F15 pilot," Looney explained. "But the thing is that you see your friends outside the service making more money, and you know you're just as well equipped and capable, if not more so, to make as much money as they do. You see what they can provide for their families. It frustrates you.

"I get a very good feeling for what I'm doing. Some day I'm going to be happy as hell and look back with great pride on the things I've accomplished in the military. But I'm exacting a pretty high price from my wife and my children to accomplish this for myself. They're the ones who are suffering.

"I feel unappreciated, taken advantage of. They know they've got a good f------ deal in the majority of people who fly this airplane. I don't feel my general has done that to me. I feel the civilian leadership has done that to me.

"The airplane could blow up. Somebody could run into me or I could run into them or we could go to war and I could get killed. And I've got a wife and parents and a family I'm leaving behind. I've accepted this, as has everybody else in this room. The American civilian leadership doesn't appreciate I'm doing that for them. I'm disappointed."

Capt. James G. Boehm, 29, of Fairview Park, Ohio, one of the pilots who flew an F15 to Saudi Arabia early in the Iranian crisis, agreed.

"If you think you're getting bad vibes," Boehm said, "I want to tell you you're talking to guys who have the best assignment in the Air Force" -- flying the F15 fighter. Many pilots flying lesser planes are even more dispirited, he said, because they feel their efforts are not appreciated. "We're in our job right now so kids in San Francisco can go out and demonstrate against the draft."

Capt. David A. Greschke, 33, of Huron, S.D., is very saleable on the civilian market. He holds an electrical engineering degree from South Dakota State University and a public administration degree from the University of North Colorado.

"I'm still motivated," said Greschke, "but I would expect, after 10 1/2 years in the Air Force, to be at a measurable level above where I started in pay, responsibilities and so on. But really, all that has changed is the rank."

He and other pilots, some of whom pulled pay cards and other papers from flight suit pockets to document their claims, said they have been losing to inflation year after year, most recently because President Carter capped their pay raises at 5 and then 7 percent -- far below the actual rate of inflation.

The $24,000 captains said they do not expect to be paid the $60,000 to $100,000 salaries of commercial airline pilots. But they resent risking their lives for a government that refuses to keep their pay ahead of inflation. They said that skilled enlisted people, such as the crew chiefs who keep their F15s flyable, are losing out, too.

"It's very disheartening for me to go out to my jet and have my crew chief work my airplane, and then tip that same crew chief over at the commissary for bagging groceries," complained Capt. Rowe P. Stayton, 28, of Quinlan, Tex., an Air Force Academy graduate.

"There's something wrong with that system," Stayton went on. "The guy is expected to put in a hell of a job out there during the day and has to come over here in the evening to make ends meet by taking what I consider a demeaning position. More important, he cannot do his regular, very important job well because he is staying up too late doing the second job."

Stayton's crew chief maintaining the $15 million F15 is an E-3, or senior airman. His base pay is $570 a month, or $6,840 a year. Allowances on top of that push his pay to just under $9,000.

Maj. Hal Hornburg, 34, who has a business degree from Texas A&M and a master's degree in career management from the University of Utah, is briefing Capt. Gerry Christeson, a graduate of Ohio State, on how they are going to "kill" two "enemy" planes in an instrumented rectangle of sky off Cape Hatteras.

The "enemy" planes are Navy F14s out of nearby Oceana Air base. Every maneuver will be recorded electronically. Afterward, the pilots will study on a screen back at the squadron what they did right and wrong, like pro football players reviewing Sunday's game film. The pilots' mistakes would probably mean death in wartime because aerial missiles have become so lethal.

Hornburg's briefing underscores the technological nature of modern dogfighting. Life or death depends on your radar seeing the other guy before his radar sees you, and on split-second mental computations of geometric angles for missles or gunfire. No more white scarf, eyeball-to-eyeball, lengthy whirling gunfights. It is kill or be killed in seconds.

"I don't want to fight slow speed today. So think getting energy. If you can't get back into the fight a good high energy rate, then separate." That means: if you can't manage supersonic speeds, break off the engagement.

"I want to run in on these guys at a six to nine thousand foot split and try to run a bracket on them," he continued. That means boxing in the two Navy F14s with the two F15s.

"I want to bracket them in terms of horizontal offset, vertical offset and in time. If I go low, we'll have a time bracket on them. What I want to avoid at all costs is having them see both of us at the same time. . . .

"What we want to do is get a quick kill and get out. If they deny that, and we know that by aspect [the geometric angles between planes fighting each other], then we fight them single-ship. If we can't get a quick kill within 15 to 20 seconds, then we want to bug out. We don't want to stay in and fight slow. Do not engage subsonic."

Capt. Christeson, Hornburg's wing man in the upcoming two-against-two air battle, interjected: "I'd like to call the aspects of my bogie, maybe every four miles. That cues me. And it might cue you if you hear me call an aspect is bogus because the geometry has changed. . . ."

"We don't have to come back with three or four kills apiece," Hornburg stressed as he ended his briefing. "What we don't want to do is come back with a mort." For mortuary.

Hornburg and Christeson walked out to their F15s, relishing the thought of the upcoming duel off Cape Hatteras. To his dismay, Hornburg found his F15 broken down. Christeson took on the two F14s alone and got back "alive."

The scene is a dinner at a restaurant outside Norfolk. Two F15 pilots from Langley and their wives are having a night out. Joan Johnson, mother of two and a computer specialist, is explaining why low pay is not the only reason pilots are quitting the Air Force in droves.

"If he moves again," she announced resolutely, "I'll stay." Capt. Henry B. Johnson III, 34, of Silver Spring, who had to bail out over the North Sea when both Pratt & Whitney F100 engines in his F15 conked out at once, said he would respect her decision.

The Johnsons have been in the Air Force 11 years. They have been forced to move 11 times. Joan has had it with both the "genteel poverty" and the continual moving.

"Our fifth grader has been in five different school systems. It's a constant adjustment to different curricula," she said. Meanwhile, she has had to give up one good job after another.

Mrs. Johnson expressed the frustration shared by thousands of today's military pilots: "I didn't anticipate at 23 what my personal needs would be at 33."