Donald S. Lopez, a World War II fighter ace who became a test pilot and spacecraft engineer and had a significant role in planning the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, died Monday at the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., after a heart attack. He was 84.
Retired Marine Gen. John R. "Jack" Dailey, the museum's current director, said Lopez "spent the first half of his life making history and the second half commemorating it."
Lopez was based in China during World War II and flew 101 combat missions. He had five documented aerial victories, the requirement for an ace, and damaged several more enemy planes.
He was deputy director at the National Air and Space Museum from 1983 to 1990 and again from 1996 until his death.
Lopez arrived at the museum in 1972, four years before its public opening, and recruited curators and aircraft restoration experts. He also wrote and edited text explaining the displays.
He was the first curator of the Pioneers of Flight gallery, which features original record-setting aircraft.
Donald Sewell Lopez, whose father was a welder, was born July 15, 1923, in Brooklyn, N.Y.
His earliest memory was being taken to the ticker-tape parade for Charles Lindbergh when the transatlantic aviator returned to New York.
Lopez said he became hooked on fighter planes as a child after seeing "Wings," a 1927 silent Hollywood film about World War I.
His family later moved to Tampa, Fla., where he joined the Civilian Pilot Training Program at Drew Field in anticipation of the U.S. entry into World War II.
He received his pilot's license in May 1943 and that October transferred to the 23rd Fighter Group. The group included many veterans of the American Volunteer Group, the China-based pilots who were nicknamed the Flying Tigers.
Lopez's first downing of an enemy aircraft was almost his last.
He was piloting a Curtiss P-40 when he shot down a Japanese Oscar fighter Dec. 12, 1943, over Hengyang, in the Hunan province of China. He nearly smashed into the enemy plane during a head-on pass, and 2 feet of his own plane's wing were shaved off. Lopez landed safely.
"Rather than saying I shot him down, I always said I 'winged' him," he told the Washington Post in 2003.
Lopez received the Silver Star for once chasing off enemy planes without resorting to gunfire. It was not by choice: He had just finished a mission and was out of ammunition.
Other decorations included two awards of the Distinguished Flying Cross and three awards of the Air Medal.
After the war, he served as an Air Force test pilot and saw combat during the Korean War.
In the mid-1950s, Lopez received a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology and a master's degree in aeronautics from Caltech.
He taught aeronautics at the Air Force Academy before his retirement from active duty in 1964 as a lieutenant colonel.
Afterward, Lopez became a systems engineer in Washington for Bellcomm, an AT&T subsidiary that provided technical and management advice to NASA's Apollo program.
He wrote several books about flight, including the memoir "Into the Teeth of the Tiger" (1986), and received numerous honors from aviation societies.
Lopez had a role in creating the museum's annex, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia, in 2003.
Survivors include his wife of 60 years, Glindel Barron Lopez of Alexandria, Va.; two children, Donald Lopez Jr. of Ann Arbor, Mich., and Joy Lopez of Durham; two sisters; and a granddaughter.