Pilots of the Soviet airline Aeroflot, including the elite corps who fly for Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and other VIPs, have been described in many terms, including arrogant, privileged, competent, professional and cowboy.

Sometimes, their self-confidence causes trouble. On Oct. 20, 1986, Cdr. Alexei Klyuyev flew a twin-engine jet into the ground, killing 62 people, while demonstrating that his "feel" for the plane was so good that he could land with the cockpit blinds closed. He survived and is in jail.

The pilots who regularly fly Aeroflot planes into New York and Washington have developed another reputation, however. They follow the rules, they are friendly and they do not cause trouble.

"The communist bloc countries, I think they're a little better disciplined," said Edward Krawiec, the Federal Aviation Administration's principal operations inspector for foreign airline operations in New York. "They follow the rules."

"They're very cordial, very fluent in English," Krawiec said. "We've had no problem at all."

Ron Davies, curator of air transport at the Smithsonian Institution, who is writing a book on Aeroflot, said he has been impressed by Soviet pilots with whom he has flown. Landings on his trips around the Soviet Union have particularly impressed him. "They grease them in almost as if they were having a contest," he said.

Like pilots everywhere, Soviet pilots complain. In an unusually frank interview with Pravda May 1, Capt. Anatoliy Khomchenko, one of Gorbachev's 10 command pilots, complained about lack of facilities.

"Unfortunately, the detachment is still not supplied with everything it needs," Khomchenko said. "We do not even have a hangar. During the winter, the presidential aircraft has to be cleared of snow and ice almost by hand. Only two of the 10 commanders have telephones at home. Messengers have to be sent from headquarters to their homes."

Regularly scheduled Aeroflot flights into the United States are handled much like those of any other foreign carriers entering U.S. air space. English is the international language of air traffic control, and the various U.S. air traffic control centers, radar facilities and towers handle the Soviet flights routinely.

However, charter flights such as the one bringing Gorbachev here for this week's summit are given a little extra attention under a 1988 U.S.-Soviet agreement. Russian-speaking U.S. Air Force escort pilots, called "shotgun pilots," are placed aboard every charter Soviet jetliner that lands in the United States. These shotgun pilots will accompany all planes in Gorbachev's entourage until they reach the first landing outside the United States.

Gorbachev's Ilyushin-62M jetliner also will be accorded at least the FAA's normal VIP treatment, going to the head of the line at takeoff. Fred Farrar, a spokesman for the agency, said all traffic around airports will be halted briefly while Gorbachev's plane takes off and lands, the usual procedure with such heads of state.

There will be no fighter escort planes. "That's far more dangerous than it's worth," one FAA official said.

Gorbachev's Il-62M is the long-distance workhorse of the Soviet air fleet, with a range of as many as 6,215 miles. It is used on most of Aeroflot's long-distance international routes.

The Il-62M looks as if it were a copy of the old British VC-10, with four tail-mounted engines, and is a contemporary of the VC-10, the Boeing 707, the Douglas DC-8 and other first-generation jetliners of the mid-1960s. However, the "M" in its name indicates that it has been upgraded with more modern avionics such as automatic flight-control systems and quieter, less polluting engines.

Like most Soviet transport aircraft, the Il-62M is considered inferior to the products of Boeing, Airbus and McDonnell Douglas. The main problem is its noisier, heavier, less-efficient jet engines. "The Soviets just never got it together with their engines," an FAA official said.

But given its drawbacks, the Il-62M has impressed those who have flown and inspected it.

"We don't know the airplane the way we would know an American airplane," Krawiec said. "{But} it seems to be a pretty good plane. It's a sturdy son-of-a-gun. It just looks like a well-built plane."

Davies said the Il-62M "flies beautifully," although "Aeroflot is still catching up to the West in terms of passenger comfort."

"The Soviet engines are not so economical to operate," Davies said. "They gurgle fuel." But he said the Soviets are meticulous about maintenance and overhauls.

Aeroflot itself is undergoing rapid change, attempting to shed its cattle-car image and match the Western version of airline service.

Aeroflot, easily the world's largest airline, serves 3,600 Soviet cities, some of which can be reached easily only by air, and 122 foreign cities. Aeroflot controls all aviation in the Soviet Union, even crop dusters, although Soviet authorities are comtemplating a second Soviet airline.

Americans may have greater opportunities to sample Aeroflot service soon under a U.S.-Soviet treaty that is to be signed during the summit and would allow increased service to more cities.

Davies said Aeroflot is making impressive strides from the days when travelers told of crowding, long delays and seats without seat belts. He called it "an improving and impressive organization of enormous potential" and said, "It seems to me they might just catch up by the end of the century."

Type: Four-engine, long-range passenger transport. The four turbofans are mounted in pairs at the back of the fuselage.

Normal cruising speed: 560 mph

Length: 174 ft., 3 1/2 in.

Range: Just under 6,000 miles.

Background: The characteristics of the jet that carried the Gorbachevs to Washington are comparable to those of the modified Boeing 707 that President Bush uses. Both planes are powered by four turbofan engines. Both planes are versions of aircraft first placed in service in the 1960s. Air Force One has slightly greater range (about 6,500 miles) and can cruise slightly faster (about 600 mph), but the Ilyushin is a longer airplane.