Not long ago I arrived at a small airport in Wisconsin in plenty of time to board the 7 a.m. commuter plane to Chicago's O'Hare for the connecting flight back home to Washington. The commuter flight was canceled. "Mechanical trouble," was the explanation finally given to the milling crowd of frustrated travelers.

"Well," one man said wearily to another, "maybe they're taking extra care because of all the crashes." His companion was unimpressed with that reasoning. He was angry and impatient. So, I'm sorry to say now, was I. My reaction, as one who spends, it seems, half his life on airplanes, and enjoys it less and less, was unfortunately typical -- and wrong.

I don't believe I'll ever react that way again, especially after having just read the advance galleys of a disturbing new book about airline safety, "Blind Trust," to be published by William Morrow and Company Inc.

The timing of this book is extraordinary, coming as it does in the midst of the worst year in terms of safety in commercial aviation history. Yet the case it makes and the conditions it describes were based on the record before the recent spate of fatal crashes, the reexamination of airplane engines and other equipment, the new concerns being expressed about the professional capabilities of the nation's air traffic controllers and all the rest. At the least, this is a book that ought to stir public demands for action and a response in Congress.

The author, John J. Nance, whom I have met, is a quiet, low-key sort of guy, not given to hyperbole or sensationalism. In fact, he's a former commercial pilot himself and a lawyer whose love, clearly, is flying. His purpose, as he writes, is not to cry with alarm nor to raise unnecessary fears in the public mind. Our airlines are not unsafe, he argues -- they are simply not as safe as they should be and must be.

Nance examines a myriad of factors that contribute to our present problems. But among the many reasons cited for the deterioration in airline safety, he singles out the Deregulation Act of 1978 -- the act that brought us, supposedly, but certainly not always, cheaper fares by spurring greater competition in the aviation industry.

He makes a compelling case, which deserves to be cited at length:

"When Congress drop-kicked the airline industry out of the fold of regulated, federal protection -- leaving it to the vicissitudes of free-market competition -- it placed the responsibility for maintaining airline safety on the back of the Federal Aviation Administration, without giving the FAA the money, the laws, or the capability to meet the challenge. The system was not adequately safe in 1978; the FAA even then was unable to ensure airline safety (though the public was led to believe otherwise). Only experience and the stability of regulation kept it safe.

"The established mainstream airlines had always kept their operational safety levels far above the federal legal minimums (though Congress in 1978 was blind to that fact) by passing the costs of safety-related functions through to the ticket prices. Safety, therefore, was strictly not a cost-accountable item -- until 1978.

"But by pitting the various airlines against each other, and by helping reduce (or destroy) profits, Congress forced the industry to make everything cost accountable -- including safety. Congress then blindly dumped the impossible task of preventing a decline in safety onto the FAA. The FAA, however, can enforce only the minimum safety standards, which have always been far below the industry norm! As money has become tighter in the industry, the result has been a predictable and guaranteed decline in the margin of airline safety as airlines increasingly drop their standards to the legal minimums in order to save money and stay competitive.

"Supposedly, the FAA watches them all and keeps them safe. In reality, the FAA is too undermanned and ill equipped to have any idea what goes on at the heart of the average airline. In effect, no one is watching. As of 1985, the airlines are on the honor system with respect to safety -- and not all are honorable."

Perhaps Nance overstates the case. Perhaps he's just plain wrong. In fact, I hope so (and so, surely, does every other airline passenger). But I also know that the evidence of trouble aloft lies before us, and I, for one, would appreciate a measure of reassurance that our airline problems are being resolved from those charged with overseeing them and safeguarding the flying public.

NOTE: Among the many excellent tributes (there could not have been enough) to E.B. White on the occasion of his death last week in Maine was, appropriately, a moving one from William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker. Since it did not appear in this paper, and because it articulates in timeless expression both memorable tribute and the essence of a writer's creed, I take the liberty of sharing it with readers here:

"E.B. White was a great essayist, a supreme stylist. His literary style was as pure as any in our language. It was singular, colloquial, clear, unforced, thoroughly American and utterly beautiful. Because of his quiet influence, several generations of this country's writers write better than they might have done. He never wrote a mean or careless sentence. He was impervious to literary, intellectual and political fashion. He was ageless, and his writing was timeless.

"Watched over and inspired by The New Yorker's founding editor, Harold Ross, he and James Thurber were the writers who did the most to determine the magazine's shape, tone and direction. Even though White lived much of his life on a farm in Maine, remote from the clatter of publicity and celebrity, fame overtook him, fortunately leaving him untouched. His connections with nature were intimate and ardent. He loved his farm, his farm animals, his neighbors, his family and words."