The Air Force has agreed to study the idea of creating a "flying" career path for its pilots, a move that would break sharply with the tradition that pilots are first and foremost officers.

While it may defy common perception, Air Force pilots tend to do most of their flying during the early stages of their career, according to a new General Accounting Office report that disclosed the service's plans to conduct the study.

By the time a pilot has served 12 years in the Air Force -- sometimes much earlier -- he or she is being pushed into supervisory and staff positions whether he wants to move or not, the GAO said.

"The Air Force has not undertaken an overall study to examine the advantages and disadvantages of offering pilots an alternative career path with a greater focus on the pilot as a specialist, rather than the total officer," the GAO said.

In an era of declining budgets and concerns about falling reenlistment rates, such a study could determine whether more pilots would remain in the service if they had the opportunity to keep flying, the GAO said.

The Pentagon advised the GAO last month that the Air Force had agreed to launch the study.

"The Air Force will evaluate the cost benefit of creating a 20-year career path that places a pilot in a flying billet for 80 to 100 percent of his or her career," wrote David J. Armor, the principal deputy assistant defense secretary for manpower. He said the analysis will be completed in January.

Armor said, however, that the Air Force had already spotted some problems with developing a pilot specialty.

The service has only so much money to buy airplanes and pay the cost of flying them, he said. The result is that pilots already have a hard time flying enough to maintain proficiency.

"Allocating these {airplane} assets to a pilot career specialist field would further limit the flying experience needed for those pilots who will form the future leadership of Air Force operations," he said.

The 29-page GAO study, requested by Rep. Bill Chappell (D-Fla.), the chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, focuses broadly on what the military calls the "rated management process." That is the personnel policies that govern men and women who have earned the rating of pilot.

"The Defense Department's position is that all military pilots are primarily officers and secondarily pilots. They should therefore be trained to be 'total' officers and to be competitive in their careers with other nonpilot officers," the GAO wrote.

"The Air Force believes that intense specialization may limit an officer's usefulness. Training pilots to be total officers, however, has increased requirements for pilots because they are often assigned to professional military education and career-broadening positions not requiring rated officers."

The GAO said that as a result of such conflicting goals, the Air Force can rarely produce the exact number of pilots it needs each year, nor can it maintain "a stable combat-ready force." The Air Force doesn't consider a fighter pilot "experienced" until he or she has 500 hours in the aircraft.

The report said that "many fighter aircraft, positioned in strategic locations throughout the world, are being flown by pilots the Air Force considers inexperienced. For example, of 607 F15 and F16 pilots assigned to the Alaskan, European and Pacific theaters in February 1987, 310 or about 51 percent were inexperienced."