Donald Lopez; Fighter Ace, Museum Official

Donald S. Lopez flew a P-40 like the one behind him at the National Air and Space Museum.
Donald S. Lopez flew a P-40 like the one behind him at the National Air and Space Museum. (By Mark Avino -- Associated Press)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Donald S. Lopez, 84, a World War II fighter ace who became a test pilot and spacecraft engineer and had a significant role in planning the National Air and Space Museum, died March 3 at the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., after a heart attack.

Retired Marine Gen. John R. "Jack" Dailey, the museum's current director, said Lt. Col. Lopez "spent the first half of his life making history and the second half commemorating it."

Col. Lopez was based in China during World War II and flew 101 combat missions. He had five documented aerial victories, the requirement for an ace, and damaged several more enemy planes.

He was deputy director at the National Air and Space Museum, one of the world's most visited collections, from 1983 to 1990 and again from 1996 until his death.

He arrived at the museum in 1972, four years before its public opening, and recruited curators and aircraft restoration experts. He also wrote and edited text explaining the displays.

He was the first curator of the Pioneers of Flight gallery, which features original record-setting aircraft.

Donald Sewell Lopez, whose father was a welder, was born July 15, 1923, in Brooklyn, N.Y.

His earliest memory was being taken to the ticker-tape parade for Charles Lindbergh when the transatlantic aviator returned to New York.

Col. Lopez said he became "hooked" on fighter planes as a child after seeing "Wings," a 1927 silent Hollywood film about World War I.

His family later moved to Tampa, where he joined the Civilian Pilot Training Program at Drew Field in anticipation of America's entry into World War II.

He received his pilot's license in May 1943 and that October transferred to the 23rd Fighter Group. The group included many veterans of the American Volunteer Group, the China-based pilots who were nicknamed the Flying Tigers.

Col. Lopez's first downing of an enemy aircraft was almost his last.

He was piloting a Curtiss P-40 when he shot down a Japanese Oscar fighter on Dec. 12, 1943, over Hengyang, in the Hunan province of China. He nearly smashed into the enemy plane during a head-on pass, and two feet of his own plane's wing were shaved off. Col. Lopez landed safely.

"Rather than saying I shot him down, I always said I 'winged' him," he told The Washington Post in 2003.

He received the Silver Star for once chasing off enemy planes without resorting to gunfire. It was not by choice: He had just finished a mission and was out of ammunition.

Other decorations included two awards of the Distinguished Flying Cross and three awards of the Air Medal.

After the war, he served as an Air Force test pilot and saw combat during the Korean War.

In the mid-1950s, he received a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology and a master's degree in aeronautics from the California Institute of Technology.

He taught aeronautics at the Air Force Academy before his retirement from active duty in 1964 as a lieutenant colonel. Afterward, Col. Lopez became a systems engineer in Washington for Bellcomm, an AT&T subsidiary that provided technical and management advice to NASA's Apollo program.

He wrote several books about flight, including the memoir "Into the Teeth of the Tiger" (1986), and received numerous honors from aviation societies.

Survivors include his wife of 60 years, Glindel Barron Lopez of Alexandria; two children, Donald Lopez Jr. of Ann Arbor, Mich., and Joy Lopez of Durham; two sisters; and a granddaughter.

Col. Lopez had a role creating the museum's annex, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, in 2003. At the time, a Curtiss P-40 similar to the one he flew in China was named Lope's Hope in his honor.

"It was wonderful," he told an interviewer. "I am proud to have a P-40 here. It felt good to sit in the cockpit -- I'd have no trouble flying it today."

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