I am HISD: ‘Hidden Genius’ Frank Mann made imprint on aviation

Phyllis Wheatley High School graduate Frank Mann (1908-1992) was just 11 when he met Howard Hughes on a Houston airfield. Mann went on to become a successful aeronautical and aerospace engineer, and worked for Hughes in California. A black child born in 1908 to an unwed mother, he defied the odds to achieve remarkable success in his field. H.T. Bryer, the author of “Hidden Genius: Frank Mann, the Black Engineer Behind Howard Hughes,” knew Mann personally. He and his brother Paul Bryer, who was Mann’s best friend and confidant, spent 20 years researching the book.  

How did you and your brother meet Frank?

In 1974, a burglar broke into Frank’s auto repair shop in south Houston through a fiberglass skylight. My brother Paul happened to be the person that Frank’s property manager called to fix it. After he repaired the skylight, Frank showed my brother his office, which was filled with framed historical photographs of airplanes and sports cars. Paul was so impressed that he resolved to let the world know that not only was one of the world’s greatest engineers alive and well and living in Houston, but he was black as well. Paul introduced me to Frank in the early ’80s.

How did Frank get interested in airplanes and other mechanical things?

Frank was 9 years old and living in Dayton, Texas, when a WWI biplane ran out of gas and landed in a field near his house. He was so impressed that he began building model airplanes. When he was 11, he spent his spare time fixing neighbors’ cars and made enough money to buy his own car. He had a girlfriend, and one day when he was upset with her, he went for a drive and saw a sign at an airport that said, “Airplane rides, one dollar.” After that, Frank forgot about girls and became obsessed with airplanes.

How did Frank meet Howard Hughes?

Frank began working for nothing at the airport, learning how to do mechanical work on airplane engines. Hughes also hung out at that airport, because it was near his father’s tool company. They met, and Howard told Frank that he was having trouble with his biplane. Frank solved the problem, and a friendship that lasted half a century began. Frank’s interest in airplanes continued all through his years at Wheatley High School. Hughes financed Frank’s building of a low-wing monoplane that he tested near Wheatley, circling the school several times before crash-landing it nearby.

What did Frank study at Wheatley High School?

According to Frank, he got a lot of help from his teachers, especially his auto-mechanics and science teachers. They sometimes helped him after school on various projects.

Where did Frank attend college?

Frank’s mother and stepfather were both teachers, so he agreed to go to Prairie View A&M and study to become a teacher. He continued repairing cars while there and built one of his custom cars during his freshman year. After his first year, he concluded that there was nothing more for him to learn at Prairie View. He wanted to know more about aeronautical and automotive engineering, but it was difficult to find a university that would accept a black student. Finally, he was accepted to the University of Minnesota and later graduated from Ohio State University.

What did Frank do after graduation?

Frank went to Compton, Calif., and became an independent engineer. In 1934, he found out that Howard Hughes was in California and contacted him. Hughes hired Frank for his newly formed Hughes Aircraft Company. In the years that followed, Frank worked as an independent contractor for Lockheed, Boeing, and other California aircraft manufacturers.

What are some of the other adventures Frank was involved in?

In 1935, Frank read about the plight of the Ethiopians who were under attack by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and his army. Against the orders of the U.S. Government, Frank shipped his own airplane to Ethiopia to fly reconnaissance for Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie’s army.

In 1939, Frank was invited to the Tuskegee Institute to become one of the first civilian pilot training instructors, but he left the program because of the shoddy condition of the training planes that the U.S. Government had supplied to them. He then asked his friend Howard Hughes to use his influence with the government to have better training aircraft provided to the program.

I understand that both Frank Mann and Howard Hughes were involved in programs to help the U.S. military during World War II. Can you tell us about their contributions to the war effort?

In 1942, Frank was one of the aeronautical engineers chosen by the government to strip excess weight from the Mitchell B-25 bombers used by Jimmy Doolittle. This would enable them to take off from the deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hornet. They also had to modify the bombers to hold enough fuel to allow them to bomb Japan and then be able to land in China.

During 1944-45, Frank was employed in the Howard Hughes program to re-arm U.S. bombers and fighters with his new flexible feed chutes for the onboard 50-caliber machine guns, thereby increasing their rate of fire from 50 to 500 rounds per minute.

Shortly after the War War II, Frank assisted Hughes in perfecting the design for the world’s largest airplane, the Spruce Goose, which allowed it to be built and flown.

Frank used his aeronautical skills to improve the aerodynamic style of the sports cars he designed and sold to Hollywood celebrities. Can you tell us a little about this part of his career?

In 1948, Frank began to design and build custom sports cars for Hollywood celebrities. He created cars for actor Mickey Rooney, orchestra leader David Rose, and entertainer Herb Jeffries. Frank named his first car the Eldorado after the Houston nightclub where he had been an emcee. [The Eldorado Ballroom is open once again after a long period of being closed.] Frank then built a small fiberglass-body sports car for a Walt Disney executive that was a prototype for the Chevy Corvette. In 1950 he built an aerodynamic car modeled on the F-86 Sabre Jet that he called his “Baby LeSabre.” It won Motor Trend Magazine’s Best Sports Car of the Year award at the Los Angeles Motorama.

Frank was honored at a ceremony at NASA‘s Johnson Space center. Please tell us a little about his contributions to the space program.

In the 1960s Frank worked at Hughes Culver City, Calif., aerospace laboratories. Among the projects he worked on was the Surveyor Moon Exploration Unit, which landed on the moon and sent the first pictures of the moon’s surface back to earth. He also worked on the preliminary designs for the Space Shuttle and was given the task of reinforcing the Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, helping to make it capable of bearing the weight of the Space Shuttle so that it could be transported across the country from alternate landing strips.

It seems that Frank participated in developing some of the greatest technologies of the 20th century. How did he live out his final years?

Frank retired in 1972 and moved to Houston to take care of his aging parents, and he continued tinkering with his aircraft and automotive designs. Frank had great wit and charm and led an active social life, singing, dancing, and do stand-up comedy in many Houston nightclubs. Frank died on Nov. 22, 1992, in Houston, his friend and mentor Howard Hughes’ hometown. He was 84 years old.