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Frank H. Austin Jr., Navy flight surgeon and medical officer for FAA, dies at 86

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 21, 2010; B08

Frank H. Austin Jr., 86, who spent many years as a Navy flight surgeon and later resigned amid controversy from a post as the top medical officer for the Federal Aviation Administration, died June 22 at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington. He had Alzheimer's disease.

Dr. Austin joined the Navy in the 1940s and had combat tours in the Korean and Vietnam wars. He received the Bronze Star for his service in Korea.

In 1957, he became one of the few Navy flight surgeons to graduate from test pilot school at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland. He flew more than 25 models of aircraft with the Navy and made more than 50 landings on aircraft carriers. He retired at the rank of captain in 1978.

He then worked for NASA, helping to develop medical and bioengineering plans for astronauts on space stations. In 1984, Dr. Austin became federal air surgeon for the FAA in 1984. As the FAA's top medical officer, he gave final approval to commercial and airline pilots seeking to have their licenses reinstated after medical problems.

He resigned in 1987 after being investigated by a House Government Operations subcommittee for "gross irregularities" in granting about 1,000 special flight certificates to pilots. The medical director at United Airlines testified that Dr. Austin often overruled panels of medical experts and that the FAA certification process reflected "poor judgment" and "irrational decision making."

A medical adviser to the Air Line Pilots Association called Dr. Austin's licensing criteria "erratic, unpredictable and off-the-wall."

Dr. Austin told the congressional committee that the controversy was only a "difference of medical opinion" and that his decisions presented "no safety risk."

Dr. Austin returned to NASA in 1987 and retired in 1994.

Frank Hutches Austin Jr. was born in Kerrville, Tex., and attended the University of Texas before graduating in 1948 from what is now the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

He was the founding president of an association for Naval flight surgeon pilots and was a member of many professional groups, including the Aerospace Medical Association and Society of Experimental Test Pilots.

He lived in Reston for many years.

His marriage to Wilma "Billie" Ord Austin ended in divorce. A son from that marriage, Robert Austin, died in 1973.

Dr. Austin's second wife, Anne Marie David Austin, died in 2008 after 31 years of marriage. A stepdaughter, Kathleen David, died in 2005. A stepson, Mike David, died in 2009.

Survivors include a son from his first marriage, Stephen H. Austin of South Deerfield, Mass.; three stepsons, Brian David and Patrick David, both of Falls Church, and Tom David of Nantucket, Mass.; and seven grandchildren.

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