The wife of the Army's chief of engineers accompanied her husband to more than two dozen foreign countries during the last two years aboard a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plane, according to a House subcommittee that has been seeking to clip the Corps' wings.

Lt. Gen. Elvin R. Heiberg III said that the trips by his wife, Kitty, were justified because they provided "official and public relations benefits" to the government. Heiberg said his wife visits with families of Corps officials stationed abroad "and helps me understand what's going on."

Subcommittee chairman Rep. Mike Synar (D-Okla.) questioned Heiberg's explanation, citing a travel itinerary that showed Kitty Heiberg spent her time visiting friends and shopping for crystal on a 1986 trip to Belgium. In his written request for approval of the trip, Heiberg said his wife's presence was "absolutely essential to ensure all activities are properly planned and executed."

The hearing was the second by Synar's Government Operations subcommittee on Corps of Engineers travel practices, specifically the three executive aircraft owned by the agency.

After the first hearing last June, the Army Audit Agency concluded that the Corps could not justify the aircraft and recommended that they be sold.

Instead, Synar charged yesterday, the Corps spent $44,000 for a new analysis of its air travel. The analysis, prepared by a contractor, reported that the planes were cheaper than using commercial or charter flights.

General Accounting Office and Army Audit Agency officials testified that the analysis was questionable and may have overstated the benefits of the aircraft by 50 percent or more.

According to the GAO, the Corps' new calculations attempted to quantify "lost productivity" by multiplying an aircraft passenger's hourly salary by his or her pay grade, inflating the value of a Corps executive's time. Army auditors said the analysis also used unrealistic costs for commercial airline tickets and assumed that Corps aircraft would be replaced with chartered planes of the same size, regardless of the number of passengers.

The analysis was done by International Technical Expertise, Ltd., a Virginia consulting firm. A representative of the firm, S.F. Rohrkemper, told Synar his company was selected for the job less than three hours after submitting a proposal last December and based the work on data provided by the Corps.

Last Thursday, Army Undersecretary James R. Ambrose ordered the Corps planes, including a 14-seat Gulfstream II jet known as "Castle One," put into a pool of aircraft available for general military use. Ambrose, who left his Army post last Friday and testified yesterday as a private citizen, said the decision is a temporary one and will be reviewed later this year.

The action did not please Synar, however, who said that the move puts control of the planes into the hands of Army officials who routinely have approved the Corps' travel requests. "Now, instead of one general and the wife flying around the globe in a 14-passenger jet, we'll get dozens of generals and their wives," he said.

The Corps' passenger planes have become a target because they are frequently used to transport retired military personnel, members of Congress and their families. However, Synar said he intended to examine practices at other agencies as well. Despite repeated efforts to rein in the cost of government-owned aircraft, civilian agencies now operate about 1,100 aircraft at a cost of about $650 million a year.