Aviation Loses a Legend: Donald Lopez Passes Away
March 5, 2008 — Donald S. Lopez, legendary World War II Ace fighter pilot, died after suffering a heart attack on Monday, March 3, at the age of 84. Lopez, EAA 283291, was a longtime EAA AirVenture Oshkosh attendee and presenter, including last year when he took part in a special Fighter Pilots forum. (Listen to the program: Part 1; Part 2) Lopez served in the 23rd Fighter Group of the 14th Air Force - successors of the Flying Tigers - in China. During his two years there under Col. Tex Hill and Gen. Claire Chennault, Lopez flew Curtiss P-40s and North American P-51 Mustangs totaling 101 missions and tallied five victories, the required number to be recognized as an "Ace."
Lopez was deputy director of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, which he had been a part of since 1972. That was when he was a part of the team led by Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins responsible for planning the construction and opening of the National Air and Space Museum.
"Don's contribution to the museum cannot be overstated," said Museum Director Gen. J.R. "Jack" Dailey. "For 35 years, he was the guiding spirit, contributing his vast knowledge of aviation, exceptional leadership skills, unflagging enthusiasm, and a sense of humor that endeared him to all."
As assistant director for Aeronautics, Lopez was instrumental in developing the exhibits that welcomed visitors at the museum's opening on July 1, 1976 and have made it the most visited museum in the world.
"We are saddened at the passing of Don Lopez," said EAA President Tom Poberezny. "He was a real American hero, admired by his fellow EAA members and aviation enthusiasts not only for his achievements in service to his country, but as one of the driving forces behind development of our national aviation museum. His contributions will be missed."
At NASM, Lopez became deputy director in 1983, a position he held until 1990. He served as senior advisor to the director before retiring in 1993. From 1993 to 1996 Lopez served as senior advisor emeritus. He was again appointed deputy director in 1996.
After WWII, Lopez's exceptional skills as a pilot qualified him to become an Air Force test pilot. He also completed a short combat tour flying North American F-86s in Korea. Following an assignment to the Pentagon, he earned a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering at the Air Force Institute of Technology and a master's degree in aeronautics from the California Institute of Technology. He spent the next five years at the U.S. Air Force Academy as an associate professor of aeronautics and chief of academic counseling.
Upon retirement from the Air Force in 1964, Lopez worked as a Systems Engineer on the Apollo-Saturn Launch Vehicle and the Skylab Orbital Workshop for Bellcomm, Inc.
Along with his membership in EAA, he was a member of the American Fighter Aces Association, and is a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society. In 1995, the National Aeronautic Association named him an Elder Statesman of Aviation, and in 1999 he was presented the Federal Hispanic Heritage Month Excellence in Leadership Award. He was also a recipient of the Frank G. Brewer Trophy in Museum Education. Lopez was honored in 2007 as one of the living legends at the Gathering of Mustangs and Legends at Rickenbacker Field in Columbus, Ohio.
Lopez's publications include "Into the Teeth of the Tiger" (Bantam, 1986), "The National Air and Space Museum: A Visit in Pictures" (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989) and "Fighter Pilot's Heaven: Flight Testing the Early Jets" (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995).
Lopez is survived by his wife Glindel, his son Donald Lopez Jr., daughter Joy Lopez and granddaughter, Laura Lopez. The family has asked that anyone who would like to honor his memory make donations to the National Air and Space Museum Donald S. Lopez Memorial Fund.