Few Americans are aware of Frank C. Mann, the hidden genius behind Howard Hughes’s success and also the Tuskegee Airman in the world of aviation and mechanics.
A native of Houston, Texas, Frank Calvin Mann was born November 22, 1908, to parents who wanted him to become a schoolteacher. From childhood, Frank had a natural ability to fix things. At age 11, he had his own mechanic shop and as a teenager he worked alongside airplane mechanics, repairing aviation engines. By age 20, Frank had designed and built several of his own Model-T cars.
Frank Mann attended the University of Minnesota and UCLA where he earned a mechanical engineering degree. Mann was Howard Hughes’s top engineer and lifelong friend and participated in many of his aviation projects, including the Spruce Goose. Hughes was instrumental in opening doors for Mann’s exceptional talents, as it was unheard of in the 1920s for a Black man to have anything to do with cars, trains, or airplanes.
Frank Mann also served in the World War II Army Air Corps and was the primary civilian instructor of the famous Tuskegee Airmen in 1941. Their participation was supported by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who was assured of their ability after riding with primary flight instructor C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson. Though they were being given inferior equipment and materials, their squadron never lost a plane, bomber, or pilot; the squadron was nicknamed the “Red Tails.”
Mann left Tuskegee after a rift with the US government, which didn’t want the Squadron, an all-Black unit, flying the same high caliber of airplanes as their White counterparts. Mann had refused to have his men fly old “World War I biplane crates,” because his airmen had proven themselves as equals. World War II equipment that revolutionized military weaponry would not exist if not for his involvement.
In 1935, following Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, he flew reconnaissance missions for the Ethiopian army. Mann later became the first Black commercial pilot for American Airways.
After the war, Mann was instrumental in designing the first Buick LeSabre automobile and the first communications satellite launched for commercial use. His pride and joy was a miniature locomotive now enshrined in the Smithsonian Institute.
Mann retired to his hometown of Houston, Texas where he died November 30, 1992.