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Arcadia's sky pilot: still active at age 87

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At 87, the longtime usher at Holy Angels Church in Arcadia still spends a couple of hours at the gym, lifting weights, doing push-ups (more than 100), swimming and doing his own routine of flexibility and strength exercises.

“It’s like an addiction to me,” he told The Tidings. “I can’t stop doing it.” He proudly adds that he has never smoked or drank alcohol. “I don’t even know what beer tastes like,” said the son of a New Mexico baker and a stay-at-home mother.

He likes the adrenaline flowing through his body, he admits. And it does not end at the gym. With his eyesight still at 20/20, Lopez likes flying his 51-year-old son Gabriel’s yellow Stearman biplane, the same type of plane he used to train Army Air Corp members in the mid-1940s.

And not simply fly, either. Loops, lazy eights, Cuban eights and upside-down flying are nothing strange to the member of the 365th Fighter Group, the famous Hell Hawks who, as part of the group’s 387th squadron, flew powerful P-47 Thunderbolts that immobilized many German planes during WWII.

 “I can still do aerobatics,” he brags with a broad smile. “Oh, yeah!”

A dream fulfilled

It was in 1942 when Edward Lopez enlisted as a private in the Army Air Corps at age 18, fulfilling a dream he had since he was four or five years old. “I listened on the radio to the flying adventures of Jimmy Allen,” he recalls, and he and his younger brother Hugo played with airplanes together.

Some of his best friends had already enlisted with the Marines and the Army, but Lopez waited to finish school --- he graduated in 1942 from Polytechnic High in Los Angeles, where he excelled in geography, physics and gymnastics --- before taking the step. 

At the recruiting station where he enlisted, Lopez recalls meeting actor Clark Gable, who also was volunteering to join the army. As volunteers they could choose their branch, and so Edward joined the Air Corps.

“I just wanted to be around airplanes,” he declares.

After almost a year of training, at the age of 20, he became an Army Air cadet and soon after he became an aerial gunner, flying a B17.

“Flying just came natural to me,” he notes. “I was in my glory.” 

But before he was sent to the war, Lopez was an instructor at a flying school for cadets in Chino, acquiring valuable experience. Deemed ready for combat, his first assignment was with the Hell Hawks, a fighter group comprised of 45 pilots from around the country.

(Their exploits were later immortalized in the book “Hell Hawks!” by Robert F. Dorr and Thomas D. Jones. A copy of the book is among Lopez’ cherished possessions in his Arcadia home.)

Proudly, Lopez tells how his squadron beat “at least 80 percent” of the German planes they encountered, although he had his share of close calls. On one occasion, he felt a bullet scrape his head, and soon blood ran down his face to the point he could hardly see. With the plane floor turning red, he still managed to gun down some of the German planes coming towards him.

His determination under fire earned him a Purple Heart medal that he keeps framed in his home studio together with eight other medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross

“When you’re flying, you don’t think if you’re scared or of getting hurt, you just do it,” he explains. “You never think of bullets, you just go down and shoot up and try to dodge.”

Most of the pilots, like him, were 20 or 21 years old. “At that age you’re too young to think twice,” he says. “If someone was 25 he was called ‘Pilot Pappy’ --- almost a veteran,” he quips

Many of the 45 pilots have since passed away, but the survivors reunite every two years, most recently in 2010. 

Adjustment period

Still filled with adrenaline after the war ended, Lopez did a three-year stint as a race car driver before becoming a private pilot flying for many celebrities. Taking advantage of G.I. Bill benefits, he enrolled at L.A. City College with plans to major in architecture.

He worked the graveyard shift as a clerk with the U.S. Post Office, while studying architecture as a full-time student, but his plans were disrupted by a thyroid malfunction that hospitalized him three months. Nothing during WWII --- not even breaking both ankles --- had sent him to bed for so long, so he fell into a deep depression.

But he recovered and soon was called back to active duty. It was 1950 and the war with North Korea “was going very hot.” At 27 he joined the Air Force and was assigned a Mustang B51, then an F-86 Saber Jet. Even an experienced pilot like himself needed long hours in the jet’s cockpit “getting used to knowing where the controls were and where all switches were located.”

He learned to “know the plane forwards and backwards,” well enough that he became an instructor pilot. But his four-year-service was different from WWII; there was no squadron or group this time, “and not that fun anymore” for someone who likes the adventure.

Finding himself with more free time, Lopez was introduced to photography by an Army captain who sold him his first camera, a 4x5 Speed Graphic. That was the beginning of his future once he returned to civilian life.

The Wolf Studio on Broadway Street he bought in the 1950s for $4,000 (and paid in $250 installments) soon turned into Eduardo’s Studio, becoming the largest wedding studio in L.A., catering mostly to German Catholic immigrants (“these German people were not like the ones I had fought in Germany, they were very devout Catholics,” he wrote) and to the Latino community, shooting an average of five to seven weddings per weekend.

It was there where he met his future wife, Maria de los Angeles, who had arrived in Los Angeles from Guadalajara, and he settled into a “life of civilian living.

Still, he missed flying and a year after marriage he purchased his first airplane, a Navion, the same type he had flown in the Korean War and in his short commercial piloting stint.

His family grew, and so did his photography competition, so he sold both the plane and the business and turned to real estate. Flying, though, remained in his blood, so Lopez bought another Navion to “fly the family around.” (He later sold the plane and started a limousine business that over the years he downsized to one limousine that he still drives for Quinceañeras and weddings.)

“The boys grew up around airplanes,” he says of his three eldest sons. He became their instructor, but it was only his second son Gabriel who picked up the passion and owned his own flight school, which he later sold, keeping a couple of planes.

Active churchgoer

Six years ago, Lopez penned a 56-page memoir, “Roots of a Fighter,” that includes his experience in Normandy and combat during the Battle of the Bulge --- and, visiting different European churches.

“Wherever I was I liked going to church,” says the man who, in his teens, supported his mother by selling newspapers after school and dived for money off the Venice Pier.

He is active at Holy Angels, an aptly-named parish for one who spent much his life patrolling the skies and making life safer for those on the ground.

And on the ground at home, the former architecture student has built a fountain in his front yard, featuring St. Francis of Assisi, who “guards our home,” in the words of Edward and Maria. It offers a peaceful retreat for one who has done anything but retreat in a life of service to country and church.

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