The Federal Aviation Administration is losing the engineering expertise needed to determine if airplanes are safe, a National Research Council panel said yesterday.

Furthermore, the panel said, the FAA frequently lacks initiative in establishing safety standards and waits for accidents to happen before seeking regulations that might have prevented them.

"The FAA engineering staff today is considerably less competent than the engineering they regulate," panel chairman George M. Low said in a press briefing. Low, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, is a former manager for the Apollo space program.

His panel's report is the latest to follow the American Airlines DC10 crash in Chicago May 25, 1978, that killed 273 people. It is in many ways the most critical of all those that question whether the FAA is doing its job of assuring the flying public of "the highest possible degree of safety," as Congress ordered.

The panel's study was requested by Transportation Secretary Neil Goldschmidt, who therefore has some responsibility to respond to it. Goldschmidt said yesterday he had ordered "an immediate analysis of the panel's findings with the intent of putting into effect promptly any recommendations that will improve our procedures."

Philip Handler, chairman of the National Research Council, said in a letter to Goldschmidt that aviation has a splendid safety record. "How, then," Handler asked, "can we impress a sense of urgency on recommendations for improving a good system, yet avoid alarming needlessly both passengers and purchasers of airplanes? One conclusion is evident: the technical sophistication of the responsible organization must not merely stand pat: it must keep pace with the advancing state of the art or risk falling dangerously behind . . ."

While the report deals with many aspects of the certification, manufacturing and maintenance of commercial airliners, its central theme is that the FAA is no longer the exciting, challenging organization that once attracted the very best in aeronautical engineering skills.

"In our view," Low said in an interview, "the FAA can only get those people if they reorganize."

FAA's engineering offices are scattered about the country and the talent is spread thin -- as senior FAA people themselves have complained.

If all those people were located in a central research facility, that fact would be enough to attract a top-flight aeronautical engineer to run the place and, in turn, attract bright young engineers to work for him, Low suggested. Such a structure, he said, "is the only way you can get that spark, that excitement."

As the report notes, FAA Administrator Langhorne M. Bond has begun to address some of the questions by declaring certain regional offices "lead regions" with specific responsibility for airframes or engines. However, "We don't think" those steps go "far enough," Low said.

When it sits down to evaluate a new airplane, the panel said, "we find that the FAA . . . lacks initiative, focuses on details and gives insufficient attention to fundamental concepts at early stages."

At another point, the report said, "A factor contributing to the lack of initiative by FAA staff, both engineers and inspectors, is their expressed concern that if they attempt to go beyond the precise letter of the regulation in overseeing the industry they will not be supported by their supervisors or by the Washington headquarters staff."

FAA's engineers need to back off from details -- properly the province of the manufacturer -- and ask big questions, the panel suggested. An FAA engineering team, familiar with what more than one manufacturer was doing, would be much better equipped to do this than a smaller regional office worrying only about one manufacturer.

The panel recommended strongly that the FAA continue delegating to manufacturers the responsibility for checking off many phases of design and construction. The FAA should participate vigorously, however, at critical moments in the process.

The Low committee report differs from other criticisim of the FAA. It does not suggest that the agency has too few people, does not suggest that it is charged by Congress with promoting aviation as well as regulating its safety, and does not say that it delegates too much responsibility to the manufacturers.

"This is not an idealistic report," Low said, but realistic, containing recommendations the secretary of transportation or the FAA administrator could actually implement.

While the question of FAA competence is overriding, the report addressed several other issues that have grown out of the Chicago accident.

Perhaps key among them is the suggestion that the FAA require airplanes to be designed so that the failure of a major component would not necessarily doom an airplane.

In Chicago, for example, the McDonnell Douglas DC10 crashed when vital controls and warning signals to the cockpit were destroyed by an event that was supposed to be impossible: an engine mounting ripping from the airplane. The engine mounting had been certified as safe; it would not fall apart as a result of normal wear and tear. However, maintenance-induced damage -- not anticipated in certification -- cracked the mount and led to its failure.

Had the panel's proposed new rule been in effect, Low was asked, would the Chicago DC10 have survived? "Yes," he said.

The panel said the FAA should improve its checks on quality control during the manufacture of airplanes, should make more frequent and unannounced checks of airplane maintenance, and should require that any damage to a major structure on a plane -- no matter the cause -- be reported.

The FAA also suffers, the panel said, from a lack of continuity and expertise in its top two jobs. Advisory panels at both the FAA and secretarial levels could alleviate that problem, the panel said.