It was purely by chance that I came across this book. It has a story that everyone should know, for it is about a most remarkable man whose many and varied accomplishments have enriched our lives. And yet, this man, Frank C. Mann (1908-1992), an African American, is largely unknown.
Mann, the only child of an unwed mother, was born and grew up in Texas. He showed an early interest in mechanical devices and became highly skilled as an automotive mechanic. His parents (by this time, Mann's mother had married a schoolteacher and had qualified as a schoolteacher herself) wanted him to pursue a profession, preferably education which conferred high status and respectability. Mann, on the other hand, felt differently. "When I was nine years old, I looked at my mother and father and I said that when I grew up, I wasn't going to be like them. They were uppity; they had no time for the average person on the street. Unless that person had something important to say to them, they figured that the average Joe had no business talking to them. Because they were educated and school teachers, they thought that they were better than the man on the street. I made up my mind that I was going to accomplish great things in my life, and no matter how big I got, I would always treat the other guy the way I would like to be treated."
It was also when he was 9 that Mann saw his first airplane, which had landed at a field near where he lived. The plane had run out of gas. Mann was fascinated and built his own model airplane, which his stepfather later showed off to his students.
From working odd jobs as a mechanic, Mann saved enough money so that he could be taken up for a ride in an airplane from an airport in Houston. Flying became his great love, and Mann pestered the mechanics there so much, that they allowed him to repair torn fabric on the airplanes and perform mechanical work on the engines. He learned a lot and one day, he met a young man while working at that airport who would be one of the greatest influences in his life: Howard Hughes. Both Mann and Hughes were kindred spirits and hit it off almost immediately. Mann went on to finish high school and later studied aeronautical engineering at both the University of Minnesota and Ohio State University. In 1934, Mann contacted Hughes and went to work for him at his company, Hughes Aircraft Co., in California. There Mann also did some contract work with a number of other aircraft companies, and established friendships with several of Hollywood's major stars, including Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart, and John Barrymore.
Mann also served for a time, on behalf of the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, as a reconnaissance pilot during the Ethiopian War of 1935-36, using an airplane (one of the fastest monoplanes of the time) he had shipped over from Canada. He went on to Europe and joined a flying circus there, serving as a stunt pilot, wingwalker, and parachutist. Mann returned to the U.S. shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War.
Mann also served as a flight instructor at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where the government had set up a Civilian Pilot Training (CPT) program in 1940 for African American men who wanted to learn to fly. All this was part of America's effort to create a corps of flyers who would likely be needed in the U.S. Army Air Corps and other aviation units in the U.S. military should the country go to war.
Mann, after war was declared, became an officer in the U.S. Army Air Force (the Air Corps was renamed the USAAF in July 1941). He continued his work at Tuskegee. Unfortunately, the aircraft Tuskegee had received from the government were largely obsolete and unairworthy. Mann got in touch with Howard Hughes, who made arrangements for an advanced trainer to be sent to Tuskegee. But by that time Mann had "gotten into a lot of trouble for partying with the Black officers' wives and White officers' wives around Tuskegee. So Howard [Hughes] pulled some strings and got me out of there before I became the first-ever Black man to be lynched by a bi-racial mob." Mann returned to Hughes Aircraft and continued to work for Hughes for the next 30 years. He also developed an interest in auto design and manufacture, producing for a time his own sports cars, whose buying clientele included Mickey Rooney and several other celebrity friends. (Mann also performed some work for NASA, which included the space shuttle program.)
This is a book for anyone who wants to learn about the life of a man born in a world largely hostile to him because of the color of his skin, who, nevertheless, devoted himself to being the best in his chosen career and won the respect of his peers. He was also a decent and fair man who lived life to the full.