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Fighter Pilot’s Heaven: Flight Testing the Early Jets by Don Lopez, Smithsonian Books, 2001

This book is about testing the early jet fighters during the American military’s transition from the propeller to the jet age, written by a pilot who went through that same transition himself.

Don Lopez was also a fighter ace who flew with the 23rd Fighter Group in China, an experience he related in an earlier book,Into the Teeth of the Tiger. This new book deals with Lopez’s life from the time World War II was winding down in June 1945 until 1950. It was a period during which he went to what he called his own fighter pilot’s heaven as a member of the Fighter Test Squadron of the Proof Test Group at Florida’s Eglin Field, later Eglin Air Force Base. There, he helped determine the operational suitability of new aircraft and weapons systems coming into the inventory of the U.S. Army Air Forces (later the U.S. Air Force).

The author flew America’s first jet fighter, the Bell P-59 Airacomet, and participated in every fighter development in the early postwar era. Lopez was selected to attend one of the first classes of the Air Force Test Pilot School at Wright Field in Dayton,Ohio. Lopez tells with dry humor the trials and tribulations of his fellow test pilots who explored the limits of the new technology to make the aircraft safe for line pilots. In the process, many test pilots lost their lives when things went quickly, and awfully, wrong.

“Aviation has been the keystone of my life,” Lopez writes. “My dreams of becoming a pilot were fulfilled, and spending almost six years as a test pilot was the icing on the cake.” But flying airplanes was not the total extent of his accomplishments; while in the Air Force, Lopez earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in aeronautical engineering and spent five years as a professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy. After he retired from the service, Lopez worked as an engineer on the Apollo and Skylab space programs. He became a curator at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., in 1972. The Curtiss P-40E Tomahawk from his Flying Tigers days hangs there on display, and Lopez today is senior adviser emeritus at the museum,having served as deputy director and head of the Aeronautics Department.

In the tradition of fact being more thrilling than fiction, Fighter Pilot’s Heaven is a you-are-there account of the life every pilot,or aspiring pilot, would love to experience.