An organization representing general aviation pilots filed a strong protest with Attorney General Edwin Meese III yesterday over a proposal before the National Drug Policy Board to allow federal authorities to shoot down planes suspected in drug smuggling if the pilots ignore orders to land.

Discussions by the Cabinet-level board on the proposal moved forward last month, even though it has been opposed by the FBI, CIA, Drug Enforcement Administration and Department of Transportation, according to federal officials. Associates have also described Meese as "less than enthusiastic" about the plan.

Under the proposal, initiated by U.S. Customs Commissioner William von Raab, Customs and the Coast Guard would be permitted "to use appropriate force" to "compel a suspected smuggling aircraft" to land, according to Drug Policy Board issue papers obtained by The Washington Post.

"Such authority would authorize the firing of weapons as a warning and, if necessary, to fire into the aircraft to ensure compliance," the proposal said.

"Currently, smugglers are conducting air drops or brief landings to transfer narcotics to boats or vehicles. On most occasions, apprehension is not possible because the aircraft ignores orders to land, and the aircraft eludes arrest by returning to safe-haven countries. As a result, the smugglers are able to operate with virtual immunity from apprehension," the latest issue paper said.

Federal sources have said the most troublesome planes are those spotted off the coast of Florida and those that regularly flee back to Mexico. The proposal said that potential target planes would be those "observed dropping or transferring bundles (presumed to be narcotics or other contraband)."

But John L. Baker, president of the 260,000-member Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, said yesterday in a letter of protest that federal regulations make it lawful to drop objects from airplanes as long as precautions are taken to avoid injuries and property damage.

"Wildlife and ocean research often entail the dropping of nets, sonar, and other equipment into the water. Aircraft aiding commercial fishermen drop marking equipment, such as dyes and buoys . . . . It is unrealistic to automatically assume that objects being dropped from an aircraft contain drugs or illegal contraband," Baker said.

Pilots have also complained that many small planes that fly in rural areas do not carry radios and might well be confused by pursuing aircraft.

Under the proposed rules, final authority to open fire on an aircraft "rests with a higher authority (outside the apprehending aircraft)."

Baker called the recommendation "totally impractical" because "communications from low altitudes out over the water may be impossible . . . {and} communications required to obtain permission to fire on suspect aircraft would be detailed and lengthy and still could not ensure positive aircraft identification to avoid a potentially fatal mistake."

Baker added that he fears that opening fire on suspected drug planes may "initiate or escalate the use of weaponry by such elements against federal agents and even the civilian public."

The issue paper notes that the Transportation Department has opposed the plan because "the alleged illegal act falls well short of a{n} imminent threat to national security or to the lives of law enforcement officers and therefore does not justify actions which could result in the downing of an aircraft and the death of its occupants."

It added that the FBI objected on the grounds that "deadly force should be reserved for self defense and the defense of others and that the use of force against aircraft exceeds existing standards."

At a White House meeting Dec. 18, according to sources who were present, DEA Administrator John C. Lawn objected to the plan as "draconian" and warned that undercover agents are sometimes aboard drug-smuggling planes.

Lawn suggested instead that civilian aircraft be required to carry an operating transponder and that the penalties for pilots on drug-smuggling planes be increased.

But proponents who were present at the meeting said there is considerable support for the proposal. They said the Justice Department's Office of Legal Policy is being asked to deal with constitutional questions about the proposal, particularly whether shooting down a suspected drug smuggler deprives the suspect of his rights to due process under the law.

Sources said the subject is scheduled to come up again at a meeting of the board's interdiction subcommittee this week. The full policy board is expected to decide the issue this month.