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Lt. Col. Donald S. Lopez -- An "Ace" For The Ages

An historical architect of the National Air & Space Museum dies.

On April 22 at 9 a.m. in Arlington National Cemetery, the book will finally close on "Lope's Hope." That book covers eight plus decades of not only the hopes of Lt. Col. Donald Sewell Lopez, but also his accomplishments.

From being one of World War II's fighter pilot aces to post war test pilot, aerospace engineer, Air Force Academy professor, aviation historian, and one of the creators and deputy director of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, Col. Lopez knew aviation both from the cockpit and the textbook like few others in the annals of flight.

He died March 3 at the age of 84 at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., following a heart attack. He will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors and a flyover.

The museum Web page recounting this Alexandria resident's life and career, starts by noting, "Every now and then, destiny brings the right person to the right place at the right time." That was nowhere more appropriate than in the case of this distinguished life.

Don Lopez wanted to fly and, more specifically, be a fighter pilot, from the moment he waved at Charles Lindburgh as the later paraded through Brooklyn, N.Y., following his solo flight across the Atlantic. Lopez was only three that day in 1927.

"I cannot remember a time since then when I was not interested in flight," Lopez said in his memoirs. That interest only became heightened by his reading of publications about the flying Aces of World War I. His fate was sealed when he saw the movie "Wings" at a local theater after reading the book given to him by an uncle. "It really hooked me on fighter planes," he said.

On May 28, 1943 Lt. Lopez received his wings in the U.S. Army Air Corps having enlisted on May 8, 1942. He had signed up for the Civilian Pilot Training Program while enrolled at the University of Tampa. The family had moved to Tampa when he was a teenager and he spent hours watching P-30's fly in and out of Drew Air Force Base.

His dream of being a fighter pilot became a reality when he was assigned to China to join the famous "Flying Tigers" under the command of Gen. Clair Chennault and war hero Col. Tex Hill. Upon America's entrance into World War II, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the American volunteer pilots known as the "Flying Tigers," who had been fighting the Japanese for China, became the 23rd Fighter Group, U.S. Army Air Corps.

Lopez was only 19 when he first climbed into the cockpit of his P-40 with its tiger shark teeth painted behind the single propeller. It was named "Lope's Hope."

But, he soon distinguished himself as one of the best. He was the first of his military flight school class to earn the Distinguished Flying Cross with One Oak Leaf Cluster. By the conclusion of his two years in China, he had also earned a Silver Star, Air Medal with two Oak Leaf Clusters, Soldier's Medal and Chinese Breast Order of Yun Hui.

During his 101 combat missions, Lt. Lopez tallied up five "kills," the required number to be called an "ace." According to Col. Tex Hill, "He became one of the great fighter pilots of World War II."

That assessment was buttressed by Gen. John R. "Jack" Dailey, director, National Air and Space Museum. "Don flew the most demanding arena and excelled. Being an ace is the valuator that a pilot has the courage and the skills to be the best. It is the most prestigious recognition for a pilot," Dailey said.

Lopez left China in March 1945, spending the next six years as a fighter test pilot at Elgin Air Force Base in Florida. That is where he met his wife of 60 years Glindel Barron Lopez. He once said, "The only thing I would change in my life is that I would meet my wife sooner."

Following his stint as a test pilot, he served a short combat tour in Korea and returned to an assignment at The Pentagon. From there he earned a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering at the Air Force Institute of Technology followed by a master's degree in aeronautics from the California Institute of Technology.

His next five years were spent as a member of the faculty at the new U.S. Air Force Academy helping to establish the aeronautics program as an associate professor of aeronautics and chief of academic counseling. He retired from active duty in 1964 and became a systems engineer on the Apollo-Saturn Launch Vehicle and the Skylab Orbital Workshop.

In 1972 Lopez came to the Smithsonian as assistant director for Aeronautics working with then-museum director Apollo astronaut Michael Collins in planning the new National Air and Space Museum.

Lopez was instrumental in developing the welcoming exhibits for the museum's opening on July 1, 1976 as part of the nation's bicentennial celebration.

Former colleague and aviation writer Jay Spencer described Lopez as, "The backbone of the museum— a walking encyclopedia. His knowledge of aviation was phenomenal." Over the years, Lopez served twice as the museum's deputy director, senior advisor to the director and senior advisor emeritus.

And that knowledge he shared with regular and famous museum visitors over the years. Some of those famous visitors included another WWII fighter pilot, President George H. W. Bush and family, Anne Morrow Lindburgh, Prince Charles of England, and Spanish Queen Sofia and her children.

In May 2003, a Curtiss P-40, similar to the one Lt. Lopez had piloted in China was delivered to the museum's companion facility, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Northern Virginia. According to his biographical sketch, before it was hoisted to its display point, Lopez sat in the cockpit and posed in front of it in the exact position as a photo taken in China nearly 60 years earlier.

Col. Lopez and his "Lope's Hope," with its "Flying Tigers" symbols, were reunited. It hangs suspended from the museum ceiling today as visual testament to a boy from Brooklyn, who followed his dream and left this nation a better place than he found it due to his presence and dedication.

A member of the American Fighter Aces Association, the Experimental Aircraft Association, a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society, Lopez was named an Elder Statesman of Aviation by the National Aeronautical Association in 1995 and was presented with the Federal Hispanic Heritage Month Excellence in Leadership Award in 1999.

In 2007 he was honored as one of the living legends of the Gathering of Mustangs and Legends of Rickenbacker Field, Columbus, Ohio. That same year he received the Gill Robb Wilson Award from the Air Force Association for his work as the author of several books including, "Into The teeth of the Tiger" and "Fighter Pilot's Heaven." The award is presented for outstanding accomplishments in arts and letters.

In addition to his wife in Alexandria, survivors include two children, Donald S. Lopez, Jr., of Ann Arbor, Mich., and Joy Lopez of Durham, N.C., both graduates of the former Fort Hunt High School; two sisters; and one granddaughter, Laura Lopez, of New York City, N.Y.

For those who wish to honor his memory, the family requests that donations be made to the Donald S. Lopez Memorial Fund of the National Air and Space Museum. They should be made payable to the museum and mailed to: The Donald S. Lopez Memorial Fund, c/o National Air and Space Museum, Development Office, MRC 321, PO Box 37012, Washington, DC 20013-7012.