DAYTON, Ohio (AP) _ Researchers at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base are testing airplane controls that would allow 21st century fighter pilots to perform their missions by talking to the cockpit rather than pushing buttons.

The goal of the research is to ease some of the burden placed on the fighter pilot, who now faces an arcade-like array of instruments. Cockpits in F-15 and F-16 fighter planes have about 300 knobs, switches and gauges.

In a combat situation, voice control would quickly unleash commands for tasks that now require the pilot to flick several switches.

''A pilot is saturated with things to do,'' said Lt. Col. Donald H. Ross, who has flown as a combat pilot and test pilot and who supervises some of the research under way. ''He has to be able to do everything. He doesn't have the time to enter data manually. He needs more time to access the system quickly.''

He said pilots are having problems managing all the computer systems in their aircraft.

To control an aircraft by voice, the pilot stores in his on-board voice command computer a pre-recorded cassette tape of his ''templates,'' the set of commands the voice computer aboard has been programmed to recognize. Before executing a command, the voice computer matches the pilot's spoken word with the pre-recorded template word.

The system incorporates a synthesized female voice to respond to the pilots. The voice has been used before. But this is the first time that pilots have talked to the cockpit.

The Air Force expects to have voice-control technology installed on aircraft in use after 1995.

Airline pilots might also benefit from the technology, which could be used during takeoffs and landings, the trickiest parts of a commercial flight.

''It goes across the spectrum of all aircraft,'' said James W. McDowell, project manager for other voice-control research at the base.

Some $5.7 million invested so far in voice-control research is one portion of overall research directed at providing pilots with a ''phantom crew,'' Ross said.

''It will enable the single-seat pilot to do the mission traditionally done with a two-man crew,'' he said.

Fighter pilots appear to have mixed emotions about the voice-control system.

Although a survey of 62 pilots at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada found most of them interested in the system, the researchers are also aware that pilots do not easily trust a machine over their own judgment.

''It's an emotional issue,'' McDowell said. ''They're in favor of the technology as long as we can show them a payoff.''

The payoff, according to a draft report on the program, is expected to be a more efficient weapon resulting in ''an attendant increase in the probability of kill and/or survival.''