The nation sent a B1B bomber and an F16 fighter. But the Voyager, which lifted the spirits of Americans last December and made aviation history, was unable to get a lift to the Paris Air Show. It cost too much.

"America's absent plane reflects an air of doubt," said Wednesday's London Times, in a feature on the air show. "Voyager misses the party," headlined the air show's daily newspaper.

The pilot-owners, Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager, had offered to lend it for exhibit at the show as a reminder of the most notable recent triumph in American aviation -- a nonstop flight around the world on one tank of gas.

But the only plane in the free world big enough to hold the unconventional flying machine, with its 110.8-foot wingspan, is a C5A Galaxy, said Peter Riva, spokesman for the pilots, in a telephone interview from Paris. Because of Voyager's special construction materials, it cannot be dismantled for shipping like conventional craft.

The pilots received tentative approval for the trip from the Defense and State departments months ago, according to Riva and others involved, and were told that formal approval was a matter of "waiting for the paperwork from the White House." Rutan and Yeager heard it discussed affirmatively among top French and U.S. officials during a state dinner at the White House in March, Riva said.

Meanwhile, the Voyager's ground crew spent "hundreds of hours" building loading devices and preparing the delicate plane for shipment, Riva said.

Then came signals that the Reagan administration was balking, he said. First there was cancellation of a planned stop here for a military air show, and finally, 10 days before its scheduled departure for Paris last Sunday, a White House official telephoned to say there would be no approval because of the expense, Riva said.

Air Force officials estimate it would cost the government $200,000 for the C5A transport to Paris. The rate for a private citizen to charter the giant plane would be about $425,000, officials said.

"We were 'standing by to stand by' " with the C5A, said Glenn Flood, a Defense Department spokesman. "But it never materialized because of the money. We have to be reimbursed unless we get a directive from the White House to make an exception" to the rules governing the use of military transport.

The Pentagon did send the controversial B1B bomber to the air show, at a cost officials estimate at $194,800, and the fighter plane. Several agencies sent delegations of their top officials, and a contingent from Congress is attending.

But Voyager is parked at a hangar in Mojave, Calif., awaiting an opening at the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum here, where it will reside with other aviation greats.

Rick Riley, the White House official who contacted the pilots, could not be reached for comment. All those familiar with the situation were en route home from the air show, a White House staff member said yesterday.

Teledyne Inc., which supplied the engines for the Voyager, had underwritten the Voyager's exhibition space, security measures and other on-site costs and paid for the Voyager team to attend the show.

"We were under the impression the plane would be here, and it isn't," said Teledyne spokesman Berkley Baker by telephone from Paris. "It's disappointing. It would have been a great forum for the United States."

Of course, Rutan and Yeager might simply have fueled up the spidery craft and flown it to Paris -- a short hop compared to their globe-circling odyssey of last December. Right?

Wrong, Riva said. "It isn't worth the risk of their lives."