Pioneering federal air surgeon left lasting legacy

August 25, 2010

While his tenure as the FAA federal air surgeon lasted only three years in 1980s, Dr. Frank H. Austin Jr.’s legacy still benefits thousands of pilots who hold medical certificates. Austin, a visionary who saw the FAA’s medical standards as overly conservative and bureaucratic, died June 22 in Arlington, Va., at the age of 86.

Austin was born in Kerrville, Texas, and attended the University of Texas, later graduating from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas. He was a naval aviator, and served combat tours in Korea and Vietnam. He received the Bronze Star for his action in Korea.

Austin completed test pilot training at the Naval Air Test Center Patuxent River in Maryland in 1957, becoming the first Navy flight surgeon to qualify as a test pilot, according to Navy records. As a dual-rated flight officer he flew more than 25 different military aircraft, and while serving aboard an aircraft carrier, he was credited with more than 50 carrier landings, according to the Washington Post . He retired from the Navy in 1978 with the rank of captain.

Following his Navy career, Austin went to work for NASA, developing medical and bioengineering plans for what later became the International Space Station program. In 1984, he was named the federal air surgeon, the chief medical officer for the FAA. His tenure with the FAA was not without controversy as Austin, who found the FAA’s medical standards overly conservative and burdened with red tape, began to develop medical certification policies and practices that were lauded by many and loathed by others, including elected officials in Congress.

The House government operations subcommittee investigated his decisions, citing “gross irregularities” in granting many special issuance medical certificates during his tenure, according to the Washington Post. “Poor judgment” and “irrational decision making” were among the allegations leveled against him, the Post reported. His style and opposition to the establishment in Washington led him out the door of the FAA after only three years, but he won many allies during his time at 800 Independence Ave.

Among the changes that Austin implemented was the policy for certification of pilots with high blood pressure that became effective in 1985. Prior to that, only limited hypertensive medications were allowed, and Austin’s policy opened up new medications and established upper limits of acceptable control of blood pressure, a policy that has been updated, yet remains in effect today.

Following his resignation from the FAA, Austin returned to NASA in 1987 and remained there until his retirement in 1994. He was an AOPA Life Member, a member and past president of the Aerospace Medical Association, a life member of the Civil Aviation Medical Association, and the first president of the Association of Naval Flight Surgeons. He received numerous prestigious awards during his career, including the Julian Tuttle Memorial Award, The Harry Moseley Award, and Louis H. Bower Founders Award, all presented to him by the Aerospace Medical Association, Civil Aviation Medical Association Executive Director Dr. David Millett told AOPA.

His vision and philosophy for civil aviation regulatory medicine during his tenure at the FAA brought to the federal regulators a resonating awareness of the need to better balance the government’s constant quest for aviation safety while establishing a basis for sound certification decision making using evidence-based medicine. His contributions did not go unnoticed by AOPA and the general aviation community. He was a passionate advocate for pilots and prevailed just long enough at the FAA to leave a legacy that to this day benefits thousands of pilots who hold medical certificates.