Donald S. Lopez, 84, deputy director of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, died of a heart attack on March 3. Mr. Lopez had been with the Smithsonian Institution since 1972, when he became part of the team led by Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins responsible for planning the construction and opening of the National Air and Space Museum. As assistant director for Aeronautics, Lopez was instrumental in developing the exhibits that welcomed visitors at the museum’s opening on July 1, 1976 and have made it the most visited museum in the world.
“The nation has lost a true hero and the Smithsonian has lost a great leader,” Smithsonian Institution acting secretary Cristián Samper said. “Don Lopez was an American Ace fighter pilot, author, educator, and museum professional beloved by all who came in contact with him.”
“Don’s contribution to the museum cannot be overstated,” museum director Gen. J.R. “Jack” Dailey said. “For 35 years, he was the guiding spirit, contributing his vast knowledge of aviation, exceptional leadership skills, unflagging enthusiasm, and a sense of humor that endeared him to all.”
Lopez became deputy director in 1983, 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.
Before coming to the Smithsonian, Lopez was already an aviation legend: a fighter pilot in the 23rd Fighter Group of the 14th Air Force –successors of the legendary Flying Tigers— in China. He flew Curtiss P-40s and North American P-51 Mustangs, demonstrating his extraordinary flying skills under the leadership of famous war heroes Col. Tex Hill and Gen. Claire Chennault. During his two years in China, Lopez flew 101 missions and tallied up five victories, the required number to be recognized as an “Ace.”
It was his exceptional skills as a pilot that qualified Lopez to become an Air Force test pilot, which he did after serving in combat. He completed a short combat tour flying North American F-86s in Korea. Following an assignment to 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. He spent the next five years at the U.S. Air Force Academy as an associate professor of aeronautics and chief of academic counseling. After his retirement from the U.S. Air Force in 1964, Lopez worked as a Systems Engineer on the Apollo-Saturn Launch Vehicle and the Skylab Orbital Workshop for Bellcomm, Inc.
Lopez was a member of the American Fighter Aces Association, the Experimental Aircraft Association and is a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society. In 1995, the National Aeronautic Association named him an Elder Statesman of Aviation; and in 1999, he was presented the Federal Hispanic Heritage Month Excellence in Leadership Award. He was also a recipient of the Frank G. Brewer Trophy in Museum Education. In 2006, he was inducted as a fellow by the Society of Experimental Test Pilots; and in 2007, he was honored as one of the living legends at the Gathering of Mustangs and Legends at Rickenbacker Field in Columbus, Ohio.
Lopez’s publications include “Into the Teeth of the Tiger” (Bantam, 1986), “The National Air and Space Museum: A Visit in Pictures” (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989) and “Fighter Pilot’s Heaven: Flight Testing the Early Jets” (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995).
Lopez is survived by his wife Glindel, his son Donald Lopez Jr., daughter Joy Lopez and granddaughter, Laura Lopez. The family has asked that anyone who would like to honor his memory make donations to the National Air and Space Museum Donald S. Lopez Memorial Fund.