He was even more excited when he learned of his assignment to China, where he would fly Curtiss P-40s and North American P-51 Mustangs under famous war heroes Colonel Tex Hill and General Claire Chennault.
Lopez was 19 when he shipped out, but he looked much younger. In his memoir of his experiences, Into the Teeth of the Tiger, he wrote, "I needed to shave only every other month or so." Squadron leader Tex Hill thought he had lied about his age. "He looked like he was about 16 years old when he arrived," Hill recalls in the book. "But he became one of the great fighter pilots of World War II."
During his two years in China, Lopez flew 101 missions and tallied up five victories, the number required to be called an ace. Dailey observed, "Don flew in the most demanding arena and excelled. Being an ace is the validator that a pilot has the courage and the skills to be the best. It is the most prestigious recognition for a pilot."
Lopez left China in March 1945 and spent the next six years testing fighters at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. He recalled that it was an exciting era to be a test pilot. "I got to fly everything there was. I flew not only the fighters, but also the bombers and transports. It was the beginning of the Jet Age—fighter pilot heaven." That phrase was later to become the title of one of his books.
While in Florida, Lopez met his wife, Glindel. "The only thing I would change in my life is that I would meet my wife sooner," Lopez said. The Lopez family includes two grown children and a granddaughter. Son Don Lopez Jr. is one of the world's leading experts on Buddhism, and daughter Joy is an executive assistant to the head of a genetic research center.
After his test pilot days, Lopez completed a short combat tour flying North American F-86s in Korea. Following an assignment at 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.
Apollo 8 astronaut Frank Borman was one of Lopez's classmates. "He never lost his calm sense of humor— even at Caltech," Borman says. "The academic load was difficult for everyone—most of us were climbing the walls, but he was always completely calm. He was technically very brilliant."
Lopez spent the next five years helping establish the aeronautics program at the new U.S. Air Force Academy as an associate professor of aeronautics and chief of academic counseling. After his retirement from the Air Force in 1964, Lopez worked as a systems engineer on the Apollo-Saturn Launch Vehicle and the Skylab Orbital Workshop.
In 1972 he came to the Smithsonian as assistant director for aeronautics. He was part of the team, led by Apollo astronaut and then-museum director Michael Collins, responsible for planning the National Air and Space Museum. Lopez was instrumental in developing the exhibits that welcomed visitors at the Museum's opening on July 1, 1976. Since that day, NASM has been the most visited museum in the world.
"Mr. Lopez was the backbone of the museum—a walking encyclopedia," former colleague and aviation writer Jay Spenser said. "His knowledge of aviation was phenomenal."