Don Lopez (1923-2008)

World War II ace, test pilot, engineer, historian, Deputy Director of the National Air and Space Museum—in his 84 years this legendary aviator did it all.

Captain Donald S. Lopez, jet pilot with the Far East Air Forces 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing in Korea, watches his Lockheed F-86 "Sabre" in the final stages of refueling and rearming in December 1950. (U.S. Air Force, courtesy National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution)
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Senior curator Tom Crouch, who worked with Lopez for over three decades, agrees. "Don's command of the history of flight was incredibly broad and deep," he said.

In 1983, Lopez became deputy director, 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.

When pressed, Lopez said that one of his greatest achievements at the National Air and Space Museum is the Pioneers of Flight gallery. "Originally, it was supposed to be a temporary exhibit, but I filled it with such great airplanes it hasn't been changed all this time," he said.

Lopez's affability, knowledge of aviation, and inside stories about the Museum's artifacts made him the perfect VIP tour guide. Among those fortunate to have received a tour from him throughout the years were President George H.W. Bush and family, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Swedish King Carl Gustaf, Prince Charles, President Li of China, Queen Sofia of Spain and her children, and numerous entertainers.

In May 2003, a Curtiss P-40 similar to the one he flew in China was delivered to the National Air and Space Museum's companion facility, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in northern Virginia. Before it was hoisted to the ceiling trusses for permanent display, Lopez sat in the cockpit and posed in front of the airplane in the exact position as a photo taken of him in China during World War II.

"It was wonderful," Lopez said about that day. "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."

Until his recent illness, Lopez came to work at the Museum at 7 a.m. every day and put on the office coffee pot. He often stayed late to attend events and lectures, and never lost his enthusiasm or seemed weary of giving tours and speaking about aviation.

Lopez loved life and loved the National Air and Space Museum. "I've been working in air and space my whole life, and this is the culmination of that. How could you have a better job than this?" he once told a reporter.

"I've been fortunate," Lopez continued. "I've gotten to do lots of good things in my life. I saw the beginning of the Jet Age, helped establish the aeronautics program at the Air Force Academy, worked for eight years on the space program, and helped found this museum."

People who knew Lopez say they are the fortunate ones. He had an all-around-nice-guy quality that endeared him to everyone, and his sense of humor was legendary. As Dailey points out, "I have never heard anything about him that wasn't complimentary."

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