Army auditors say the Corps of Engineers should sell its emergency aircraft because the corps' brass is misusing the planes for expensive globe-trotting.

The three aircraft, including a Washington-based, 14-passenger executive jet, fly most of the time to meetings and conferences, sometimes with wives of corps officials improperly riding free at taxpayer expense, the auditors said.

"Virtually all of the flights were for routine matters and could have been accomplished with commercial aircraft," the Army Audit Agency said in a report released by Rep. Mike Synar (D-Okla.).

"The corps should sell their aircraft and use commercial transportation," said the auditors, estimating that the sale would bring taxpayers $6.4 million and cut annual corps' travel expenses by $1 million, or 71 percent.

The report said the planes owned by the corps' civil division, which builds water development projects in this country and provides advice to other nations, were justified to Congress as necessary to respond to emergencies and for visits to remote projects.

The report said that even though Army policy discourages use of government planes for overseas travel, the executive jet spent 52 percent of its flying hours winging to such places as the South Pacific and Europe.

In June 1984, six dependents not authorized to travel at taxpayer expense accompanied five corps employes on an agency aircraft to Helsinki for a conference of the Permanent International Association of Navigational Congresses (PIANC), the auditors said.

Synar noted at a House subcommittee hearing last week that the wives' itinerary included sightseeing, a fashion show and visits to an old cottage and a candy factory.

Lt. Gen. Elvin R. Heiberg III, the chief of engineers, testified that the wives' trip was justified because it satisfied the Army's requirement that their presence be necessary for official functions or provide diplomatic or public relations benefits.

"I don't buy that," responded Synar, who said wives accompanying corps officials to PIANC's 1985 meeting in Brussels had an itinerary of "excursions and visits to leading Belgian cities" and "exploring Belgian gastronomy."

In comments in the report, the corps said little of the travel on its aircraft could be done as efficiently using scheduled commercial airlines. The corps said the planes provide greater security against terrorism, that a sale of the aircraft would bring only $4 million, that dependent travel was properly approved by the chief of engineers and that 85 percent of the 1986 flights were essential.