Lopes Hope 3rd – A Restoration Retrospective

The Dakota Territory Air Museum's P-51C Mustang Lope's Hope 3rd (as flown by the legendary Don Lopez) was meticulously restored last year.... This is a recap of the restoration at AirCorps Aviation, a celebration of Don Lopez' legacy, and the experience of winning the Grand Champion WWII and Golden Wrench Award at Oshkosh last year. (photo by Christopher Miller via AirCorps Aviation)

Chuck Cravens recently submitted a fascinating retrospective featuring the recent restoration at AirCorps Aviation in Bemidji, Minnesota of the Dakota Territory Air Museum’s P-51C Mustang Lope’s Hope 3rd, dedicated to the life of the legendary Don Lopez, who flew an aircraft just like this in the CBI during WWII. The restoration went on to win the biggest of awards at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2018, and we thought our readers might enjoy learning a little more about that experience…


by Chuck Cravens 

Lope’s Hope 3rd at Bemidji Regional Airport, ready to head to Oshkosh AirVenture 2018. (photo by John LaTourelle)

Don Lopez… the inspiration for this restoration

As far as is known, Lope’s Hope 3rd is the first P-51C restored to honor Mustangs serving in China. Donald and Lope’s Hope 3rd served in the China-Burma-India theater with the 14th Air Force, 23rd Fighter Group, 75th Squadron. The 75th’s mission throughout its service in China was to establish air superiority and strafe airfields, supplies, and Japanese troop concentrations. 

Donald Lopez, Sr., Deputy Director of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum. (Photo courtesy of Lopez family via AirCorps Aviation)

The squadron flew from several airfields in China and moved from base to base, depending on the position of the front lines separating the Chinese army and the invaders from Japan. The 75th and sister squadrons, the 74th and 76th, were able to command the airspace and prevent the Japanese from developing a consistently effective bombing campaign in China during the final three years of the war. 

Lt. Lopez flew 101 combat missions and had 5 victories in China. 

Don Lopez’s contributions to aviation didn’t stop with World War II. He went on to serve as a test pilot when the Air Force became a separate branch and transitioned to the early jets. At the close of World War II, Donald was assigned to the elite Proof Test Group of the Air Proving Ground Command at Eglin Field in Florida. There he test flew the P-59, P-80, and P-84, testing weapons systems, suitability for operational status, and developing tactics in the new jets. 

Don also flew a tour in Korea, and spent five years helping establish the aeronautics department and teaching at the Air Force Academy. 

In 1972, Lopez joined the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum as assistant director of aeronautics. He served as the deputy director and historical architect from 1972 until his death in 2008. 

Donald was instrumental in the planning and administration of both the museum on the Mall, which opened in 1976, and the Udvar-Hazy Center at near Dulles International Airport, which opened in 2003. Today, visitors to Hazy are greeted by a snarling P-40 with “Lope’s Hope” on the cowling and 194 on the tail. Don’s resting place is marked by a simple soldier’s headstone at Arlington National Cemetery. 

During the summer of 2017, the Lopezes visited AirCorps to see Lope’s Hope 3rd. From left, Warren Pietsch, Laura Lopez (Don’s granddaughter), Bruce Eames, Dr. Donald Lopez, Jr., and Erik Hokuf at AirCorps Aviation. (photo AirCorps Aviation)
Lt. Lopez’s granddaughter Laura experiences what her grandfather saw and felt as he sat in Lope’s Hope 3rd 73 years ago. (photo AirCorps Aviation)
Warren taxies out in Lope’s Hope 3rd. (photo by John LaTourelle)
A sundown photo on the first evening that Lope’s Hope 3rd was parked at AirVenture 2018. (photo AirCorps Aviation)

Leaving for Oshkosh 


Any time AirCorps presents a restored warbird for judging at Oshkosh, a great deal of preparation occurs to be certain that the airplane is presented at its best. 

Before the trip, a 44 page judging book was prepared, to highlight details of the restoration that demonstrate craftsmanship, and both historical and technical accuracy. 

Lope’s Hope on the cover of the judging book. Photo by Scott Slocum

Display Boards

Display boards were an important part of the Lope’s Hope 3rd presentation. AirCorps’ historian composed, titled and obtained photo permissions. Then the material created was used by Evolve Creative to design attractive display boards. These were mounted on sandwich board stands for easy set up and take down. 

Great air to air photography by Brent Clark, Scott Slocum, William Morgan and Matt McVicker made the boards eye-catching for Oshkosh attendees. 

Visitors & Special Guests 

The best reason to display a warbird at AirVenture is to share it with the people who attend. The history of the warbirds, the great men who flew them, and the sacrifices and effort that united America and allowed us to emerge victorious are preserved in a dramatically visual way by flying warbirds. Talking to people who stop by the display of a warbird allows that same history to be told in detail specific to a single plane like P-51C Lope’s Hope 3rd. 

We spoke with thousands of visitors and had some very special people stop by.

Erik does a video interview in front of Lope’s Hope 3rd. Several video interviews were done for various media groups by AirCorps staff. (photo AirCorps Aviation)


Lyle Jansma of AeroCapture Images did a shoot for their app Cockpit 360. He did a great job documenting interior and panel of Lope’s Hope 3rd. https://www.facebook.com/EAA/photos/a.4106360
43622/10156847316993623/?type=3&theater. (photo via AirCorps Aviation)

Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum 

Dorothy Cochrane, Curator of General Aviation at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and NASM Deputy Director Christopher Browne visit with Warren Pietsch about Don Lopez Sr., Lope’s Hope 3rd and its connection to the Smithsonian. (photo via AirCorps Aviation)
Christopher Browne, who holds the position Don Lopez once held at the National Air and Space Museum, had a chance to experience what Don felt sitting in the cockpit of Lope’s Hope 3rd. (photo via AirCorps Aviation)

Kent Voight

Lt. Lopez had a pet parrot in China, and Ken Voight brought the parrot and a bit of interesting history: 

“My father-in-law was in China and flew some missions with Lopez. It always cracked him up when he talked about Lopes’ parrot and if the parrot started drooping his head, Lopez would give it oxygen.” – Kent Voight

It‘s pretty unusual to see a parrot in the warbird area at AirVenture, but there’s a good reason for this avian visitor’s presence on Bernie Vasquez’s finger. (photo via AirCorps Aviation)

Harry Theobold 

A woman wheeled an elderly man up to Lope’s Hope 3rd in a wheelchair and introduced herself as Cythia Blisard and her father as Harry Theobold. 

Tina (left) welcomes Harry Theobald and his daughter Cynthia Blisard. (photo AirCorps Aviation)
Eric and Chuck listen raptly to Harry Theobald tell his story. (photo via AirCorps Aviation)

Harry came to Oshkosh specifically to see B-17s, B-24s, and P-51s. While he didn’t get to see a B-24, he was more than happy with the Mustang turnout. The bombers were important to Harry because he was a tailgunner, with 15 missions in B-24s, and 19 missions in B-17s. When I asked him about his interest in the Mustang he replied“ Once the Mustangs arrived and could escort us all the way to the target, we didn’t see German fighters anymore. Those P-51 pilots saved my life.” Later on, EAA Warbirds, Dakota Territory Air Museum, and AirCorps folks helped make sure that Harry met a current B-17 crew and two WWII veteran pilots, Dick Cole and P-51 pilot Bud Anderson. 

Meeting members of the greatest generation, and doing everything we can to honor them and helping them enjoy their airshow time is the best part of the Oshkosh experience!

Heather Penney

Another very special guest was Major Heather Penney. (photo AirCorps Aviation)
Doug Birkey, Heather Penney, Tina Moore and Chuck Cravens with Lope’s Hope 3rd. (photo AirCorps Aviation)

Warbirds Banquet 

After 6 days of displaying Lope’s Hope 3rd and sharing Don Lopez and his P-51C’s history, it was time to attend the EAA Warbirds banquet. 

We hope that you have enjoyed reading through this fascinating piece. If you would like to learn more about the restoration of this magnificent aircraft, please be sure to check out the back issue of Warbird Digest Magazine (Issue #76) in which we describe the restoration process in minute detail, and feature some fabulous air-to-air images of this beautiful fighter taken by the inimitable Scott Slocum.

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