"The Gulf Coast has buildups of cumulus clouds almost every afternoon, and they gave me some of the most beautiful and pleasurable flying I've ever experienced. Often in the late afternoon, Barney [Turner], Dick [Jones], and I would take off in three fighters (sometimes all the same type, usually some mixture of P-51, P-38, P-63, and P-47) and rat race through the cloud valleys and over the cloud mountains. We would zoom up one side of a steep cloud, then roll over the top and dive down the other side, do a roll or two through the valley, and then zoom up over the next mountain. There was no conscious thought of flying behind the leader; we just followed him, and the airplane was a part of the pilot. The beauty of the clouds and the sun was surpassed only by the shadows of the airplanes on the clouds surrounded by a rainbow halo. If I had to do only one thing for the rest of my life, I think that would be it. It was what heaven should be like for fighter pilots."
--Donald S. Lopez, Into the Teeth of the Tiger
Every now and then, destiny brings the right person to the right place at the right time. For the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum—home to the world's most important icons of aviation and space—that person was Don Lopez.
Lopez, who died on March 3 following a heart attack at the age of 84, was a modest man blessed with enormous talents and a keen, self-deprecating wit. A World War II flying ace, he was also a test pilot, aerospace engineer, Air Force Academy professor, aviation historian—and legend to all who knew him. Said General John R. "Jack" Dailey, director of the National Air and Space Museum, "Don's vast knowledge and knack for hiring an outstanding, creative curatorial crew enabled this museum to tell the story of aviation in a thorough, authoritative, and engaging way."
Since he was a young boy growing up in Brooklyn, New York, Lopez wanted to be a fighter pilot. He remembered that at age three, he waved at the heroic figure of Charles Lindbergh as he paraded through the streets of Brooklyn in 1927. "I cannot remember a time since then when I was not interested in flight," Lopez said in his memoirs.
He became an avid reader of publications about World War I aviation like Flying Aces and Battle Birds. "An uncle gave me a book about the movie Wings, and when the movie was showing at a theater near our house I got to see it," Lopez said. "It really hooked me on fighter planes."
A family friend who flew barnstorming flights off the beach on the Jamaica Bay shore gave Lopez his first airplane ride when he was about seven. It was in an open-cockpit Waco. "When I was a little older," Lopez said, "I used to ride my bicycle to Floyd Bennett Field. I would stand by the fence looking as sad as I could, and occasionally the same family friend would take me up."
When he was a teenager, the family was living in Tampa, Florida, where Lopez spent many hours watching Bell P-39s fly in and out of Drew Air Force Base. At the University of Tampa, Lopez signed up for the Civilian Pilot Training Program, which was training pilots in case of war. On May 8, 1942, he enlisted.
He received his wings on May 28, 1943, and the lieutenant who swore in his group said he was sure there would be at least one Distinguished Flying Cross recipient in the bunch. Lopez vowed that he would be it, and he was.
"Back then, everyone was pretty eager to fight," Lopez said. "I think everybody wanted to be a fighter pilot, and when you were selected, you were just overjoyed."