The copilot who is believed to have been at the controls of the Continental flight that crashed in a snowstorm in Denver last week wouldn't have been allowed to handle the takeoff at Eastern or American Airlines.

At Eastern, if both the captain and the copilot are relatively inexperienced -- that is, if the captain has fewer than 100 hours experience in command of a particular aircraft and the copilot has less than 200 hours of experience on the aircraft -- the captain is required to handle takeoffs and landings.

American's rules prohibit a captain with less than 100 hours as pilot in command of a particular aircraft from turning the takeoff over to the copilot.

In addition, American requires at least one member of a two-person cockpit crew to have spent 50 hours in that seat, which would have prevented the pairing of the Continental employes.

None of this is to say that Continental rules, which left the decision of who was going to fly the plane up to the captain, are inherently unsafe.

Both Continental and industry professionals say that having the copilot at the controls and leaving the captain free to carefully monitor the takeoff can contribute to safety in some circumstances. Nor is it to say that pilot error or inexperience caused or contributed to the crash of the DC9 that killed 28 people, including the captain and copilot.

The National Transportation Safety Board is still sorting out the reasons for the crash, examining factors including pilot experience.

But the Continental crash and the questions it has raised follow a series of incidents that have focused attention on pilot training, including the August crash of Northwest Airlines Flight 255 and several incidents involving Delta Airlines, including a near-collision.

In the case of the Northwest flight, the pilots were highly experienced but failed to properly go through a checklist that included a reminder to set the flaps on the airplane.

In the past four years, the nation's airlines have gone on a hiring binge, signing on record numbers of new pilots to keep up with the tremendous increase in demand for flying that followed deregulation of the airline industry.

With the pool of available labor shrinking and a pilot shortage predicted, airlines have altered some of their requirements and have hired pilots with less experience and different types of experience.

Some of the old criteria for pilots, including height requirements and a requirement that candidates have 20-20 uncorrected vision, were arbitrary and unnecessary, said Kit Darby, vice president of the Future Aviation Professionals of America (FAPA), a career information center. But they were easy to impose when supply greatly exceeded demand.

The requirements "grew up in a period of oversupply," Darby said. "For 20 years, management could crack the back door and whisper 'pilot' and be overrun."

Because airlines typically have hired pilots with hours far in excess of the airlines' minimum requirements, those minimums are not likely to change.

For instance, Continental's minimum hiring standard is 2,500 hours experience, but its new hires in the past year have averaged 4,000 hours, according to Texas Air Corp. vice president Clark A. Onstad.

In fact, total flying time for newly hired pilots shows no signs of declining.

This year it will be about 4,000 hours. What is changing, said Darby, is the quality of that experience -- with fewer pilots having experience flying high-performance jets.

The reason for that change is the reduction in the percentage of new hires with military background -- an outgrowth of the end of the war in Vietnam, the growth in commuter airlines and increasing demand for pilots.

In 1987, an estimated 63.7 percent of the new hires will have a military background, which is generally preferred by airlines. In the past, pilots with military backgrounds accounted for 75 percent to 80 percent of all new hires.

In 1983, average jet hours for new hires at major airlines was about 2,300, according to the FAPA. In 1985, the average had dropped to 800 hours.

This year it is expected to rise to about 1,400 hours, in part because airlines are hiring more older pilots.

Some industry officials argue that flying scheduled service on commuter aircraft may be more valuable than jet time to an airline and that, therefore, the decline in jet hours matters little. Continental notes that the instrumentation on the turboprops that commuter airlines typically use is similar to instrumentation aboard a high-performance jet.

But other pilots say that making the shift from turboprops to higher performance airplanes is a bigger switch than shifting from one high-performance jet to another.

"A propeller-driven, straight-wing airplane is much more forgiving than a high-performance, swept-wing jet," one pilot said.

Continental's Captain Frank Zvonek, 43, had only 33 hours and 23 minutes as captain of a DC9 jet but had extensive experience, including flying heavy, four-engine transport jets for the Navy.

He had flown 727s and had a total 12,000 hours flying time, ranking him 459 among about 4,000 Continental pilots. Copilot Lee Bruecher, 26, had considerable turboprop experience on a commuter airline but had flown only 36 hours and 36 minutes in the DC9.

Both employes met the Federal Aviation Administration's minimum standards and Continental's additional requirements, and both had undergone FAA-approved extensive DC9 training in ground school and simulator training before they began flying DC9s. Each man also had been at the controls for at least six takeoffs and landings during training, flying a DC9 without passengers, said Chip Barnes, Continental's assistant chief pilot in Denver.

In fact, a spokesman for Continental said that Bruecher had done 29 takeoffs and landings in a DC9 before the accident.

Even so, the two pilots were relatively inexperienced on the equipment they were flying, a point that National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Jim Burnett noted last week as the investigation got under way.

The combination of two crew members inexperienced on the equipment can be a concern, the Eastern and American rules indicate.

Continental officials note that today's pilots are far better trained than their predecessors because of advances in simulators. In addition, both the captain and the copilot had considerable experience that counts even when the equipment is unfamiliar, according to Continental. "There's no such thing as almost qualified. There's only qualified," said Continental spokesman Bruce Hicks. "Trying to deal with hours and numbers is a disservice to this industry and this country and the pilots in this country, and an incredible shame to the memory of two excellent pilots."