An American ace in the China-Burma-India Theater of World War II, Donald S. Lopez joined the Aviation Cadet Program in May 1942 and received his wings a year later at Craig Field, Alabama. Transitioning to the P-40N Warhawk, he received orders to the 75th Fighter Squadron of the famed 23rd Fighter Group. Living and working in primitive conditions, the squadron's mission was to attack enemy troops, airfields, and all methods of transportation to stem the tide of the advancing Japanese Army. By 1944, due to constant enemy air attack, the 75th was forced to shift its operations among airfields in Hengyang, Lingling, Kweilin, and Chihkiang, China.
Nonetheless, Lopez and his comrades managed to keep the pressure on the Japanese through strafing attacks and escort of Fourteenth Air Force bombers, forcing the Japanese to divert ever scarcer resources from other theaters. By the end of his tour, he had become an ace, shooting down five Japanese aircraft in the P-40 and the P-51 Mustang. Returning to the States, Lopez reported to Eglin Field, Florida, as a test pilot, evaluating early jets such as the P-59 Airacomet and the P-80 Shooting Star. In 1947, he attended Test Pilot School and continued to evaluate fighters as well as bombers and transports. When war broke out in Korea, he accomplished combat suitability tests in the F-86 Sabre with the famed 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing.
In 1951, he reported to the Pentagon to work in the Air Defense Section of the Fighter Requirements Division. After receiving degrees in Aeronautical Engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology, Lopez taught thermodynamics and propulsion at the US Air Force Academy where he was among the faculty's initial cadre. He retired from the Air Force in 1964 and joined the Systems Engineering Branch of NASA where he worked on the propulsion systems for Apollo-Saturn and the Skylab Orbital Workshop.
In 1972, Lopez became the Assistant Director for Aeronautics at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., responsible for all museum functions regarding flight within the atmosphere. He personally developed the exhibits in five major galleries and supervised the curators of six additional major galleries for the museum opening. In 1983, he became the museum's deputy director, responsible for all aspects of museum operations. An accomplished author, Lopez has written nine books and magazine articles on aviation and is an active consultant for aviation museums throughout the world.
On 4 August 1944, Lieutenant Lopez led the second flight of an eight-plane mission of P-40s to attack a group of boats carrying ammunition. After hitting the targets, they discovered more boats unloading fuel and strafed them until out of bullets. Suddenly, 12 Japanese Oscar fighters appeared escorting Val dive-bombers. Lopez directed the remainder of his flight to return home and went after the Oscars. Making head-on attacks through the enemy fighters, he scattered them, allowing the remaining P-40s to attack the Vals. For his heroism and skill, he received the Silver Star.