A Life in Aviation
The fresh-faced young man—kid, really—smiles as he poses for a photo in front of his shark-mouthed Curtiss P-40N Warhawk in China. Don Lopez was only 19 when he shipped out to join the 75th Fighter Squadron of the 23rd Fighter Group, successor to the legendary Flying Tigers (see story, P. 24), but he looked even younger. Squadron leader David “Tex” Hill thought he must have lied about his age. “He looked like he was about 16 years old when he arrived,” Hill recalled. “But he became one of the great fighter pilots of World War II.” In his classic account of his World War II service,Into the Teeth of the Tiger, Lopez himself acknowledged his youthful appearance with typical understated humor: “I needed to shave only every other month or so.”
Lopez’s first dogfight was almost his last. When a Nakajima Ki.43 “Oscar” flew directly at him during a mission on December 12, 1943, he nearly collided head-on with his adversary. “I could see my bullets flashing in front of his airplane,” he remembered. “I could see his guns firing, although I didn’t feel any hits (although when I landed I had a lot of holes in the airplane). Just at the last second before we hit engine to engine he made a very violent right turn, and my left wing hit his left wing and took it off. His wing came off just outside the arc of the propeller—more than half of his wing. I lost about 2½ feet of my wing.” The Oscar tumbled down, out of control, the first of Lopez’s eventual ace-making five kills. But despite a shredded aileron, his sturdy P-40 flew fine. Lopez “gave silent thanks to the designers and builders of this rugged craft,” and safely returned to base.
Fast forward nearly 60 years to March 2003 and Lopez is again posing in front of a P-40, this time holding the photo of himself in China. The shark-mouthed P-40E behind him bears the name Lope’s Hope, and would soon be hung in a place of prominence at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center. Before that happened, though, Lopez got a chance to sit in the cockpit. “I’d have no trouble flying it today,” he quipped.
During the six decades that separated those two photographs, Lopez lived a life in aviation. Following his two-year WWII combat career, he spent six years testing fighters at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, as he recounted in Fighter Pilot’s Heaven. After a short combat tour flying North American F-86s in Korea, he went on to earn a master’s degree in aeronautics at Cal Tech. He helped establish the aeronautics program at the U.S. Air Force Academy as an associate professor, then worked as a systems engineer on the Apollo and Skylab programs.
But Lopez was perhaps most proud of his association with the National Air and Space Museum, which he joined in 1972 and where he later became deputy director. “I’ve been working in air and space my whole life, and this is the culmination of that,” he said. “How could you have a better job than this?”
Donald S. Lopez died on March 3 at age 84. You can read more about him and share your thoughts at www.nasm.si.edu.
Originally published in the July 2008 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.