WASHINGTON — Donald D. Engen, who headed the Federal Aviation Administration for three years during one of its most embattled periods, announced his resignation Wednesday, surprising many colleagues and aviation activists in Congress.
Engen, 62, a retired Navy vice admiral who has spent 41 years in civil and military service, offered no reason for his decision and refused to say what his immediate plans are.
In a letter submitted to President Reagan last Friday and made public Wednesday, Engen said only that he looks forward to "working in the best interests of aviation in the private sector."
'Finally Got Fed Up'
However, other aviation industry officials speculated that Engen was tired of the heavy hand that they said Department of Transportation officials had exerted in decisions involving the FAA, from personnel and budget matters to key policy decisions.
"The word going around is that he finally got fed up with it," said one official who asked not to be identified.
"He had the best interests of civil aviation at heart," added Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (D-San Jose), who chairs the House Public Works and Transportation Committee's aviation subcommittee. "He had a tough job to do at a difficult time."
Engen served as a steadfast defender of the agency and the standards of American aviation safety during a period in which a rash of major airline crashes and complaints about the troubled air traffic control system produced intense criticism.
'Accomplished a Great Deal'
He appeared many times before Congress to assert that the agency's stepped-up system of fines for airline safety violations and escalated hiring of new controllers were preventing airline safety from deteriorating, as many critics charged. He also oversaw the rebuilding of the agency's budget to cope with the effects of airline deregulation, which massively increased the number of air carriers and overtaxed the agency's safety enforcement system.
FAA spokesman Stephen D. Hayes said that Engen believes "he has accomplished a great deal of what he set out to do. I think he wants to move back to the private sector and he also wants to spend more time with his family."
In his letter to Reagan, Engen set a July departure date to "allow an orderly succession to take place."
A former test pilot who was born in Pomona, Calif., Engen was serving on the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates transportation accidents, when he was called on to take over the FAA in 1984 after the resignation of J. Lynn Helms.
Commended for Commitment
Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Hanford Dole commended Engen Wednesday for his commitment "to making sure the American aviation system remains the safest and most efficient in the world."
"Don is a man of the highest integrity who has given of himself nearly his entire career in service to the American public," she added. "He has sought to make a positive difference in people's lives and he has succeeded."
Dole also is expected to leave her post in the near future and is expected to join the presidential campaign of her husband, Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.).
Agency officials said there has been no consideration yet of possible successors for Engen. His announcement took the aviation community by surprise.
"We were expecting to work with Don Engen on important aviation issues for many months to come," said William F. Bolger, head of the Air Transport Assn. of America, a lobbying group that represents the nation's major airlines.
A Responsible Arbiter
While aviation groups had their disagreements with the FAA, most viewed Engen as personable and a responsible arbiter of conflicting interests. "Our relations with Engen were the best we've had with any administrator in my memory," said John O'Brien, director of the engineering and air safety department of the Air Line Pilots Assn.
Engen was at the agency's helm in 1985 when the airline industry experienced its worst year for accidents and deaths, with 526 deaths, and watched last year as it rebounded with one of its safer years.
During his tenure, the airline industry experienced turbulent change through a boom in new airline start-ups and mergers. The changes increased pressure on the FAA to oversee more flights at a time when the agency was trying to rebuild the air traffic controller work force in the wake of the 1981 controllers' strike.
More recently, the agency has been affected by the Department of Transportation's plans to begin drug testing for airline crew members.
Engen never wavered in his defense of the nation's aviation system.
"During my three years as administrator, the FAA has played the lead role in maintaining and enhancing air safety and air transportation efficiency," he said in a statement Wednesday.