Nephew plans memorial for pilot killed in 1970

  • Pilot Roger Lopez, born and raised in Northfield, in the cockpit of a T-6 Texan while he was in the U.S. Air Force. Lopez was killed trying to land a World War II-era B-25 bomber at Orange Municipal Airport on Aug. 9, 1970. Lopez’s nephew, Mark Perez, has planned a memorial ceremony at the airport at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 9 – the 50th anniversary of his uncle’s death. A granite bench in Lopez’s memory will be dedicated at the ceremony. COURTESY MARK PEREZ

  • Pilot Roger Lopez, born and raised in Northfield, was killed trying to land this World War II-era B-25 bomber at Orange Municipal Airport on Aug. 9, 1970. Lopez’s nephew, Mark Perez, has planned a memorial ceremony at the airport at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 9 — the 50th anniversary of his uncle’s death. A granite bench in Lopez’s memory will be dedicated at the ceremony. COURTESY MARK PEREZ

Staff Writer
Published: 7/31/2020 5:43:56 PM

ORANGE — Eight-year-old Mark Perez was playing with his best friend across the street on Aug. 9, 1970, when his brother came over with a message.

“Mark, you need to come home right now,” his brother said.

Perez, who grew up in Westfield, walked into the family kitchen and saw his mother, Maria, on the phone, crying. His father approached him with news about his uncle Roger, a U.S. Air Force veteran everyone knew had been commissioned to fly a World War II-era bomber from Massachusetts to a private buyer in Rochester, N.Y., that day.

“He flew it today and there was an accident and he was killed,” Perez recalled his father saying.

A half-century later, Perez has taken the initiative to organize a memorial for his uncle at Orange Municipal Airport, where the crash occurred. The ceremony is slated to start at 1 p.m. on Aug. 9. An 800-pound granite bench, crafted by Vermont Granite Works in Barre, Vt., will be dedicated to Lopez.

“It’s something we wanted to do to honor Roger’s memory,” Perez said. “A permanent record of what happened.”

Perez, who lives in Southampton, explained many of the military’s B-25 bombers were sold off to private ownership by the U.S. government in the late 1950s. He said one was purchased by the Yankee Air Club and it was kept at Turners Falls Airport for three years before the club sold it to a buyer in Rochester. He believes the aircraft was slated to be placed in front of a restaurant. Perez said Lopez, 36, regularly rented airplanes to fly for his own leisure and got commissioned to ferry the B-25 to Orange and then to New York.

According to The Greenfield Recorder’s report of the accident, Lopez had circled the field twice and was making the first of five planned full-stop landings at 8:30 a.m. when, according to witnesses, the plane skimmed low over the airport’s runway, banked to the left and then nose-dived into the ground, barely missing a ground crewman. Lopez was killed instantly, with the cause eventually attributed to decapitation. He was not married and had no children.

Perez said the left engine failed.

The following day, John R. Graham of the Federal Aviation Administration office in Westfield said the practice landings were necessary because Lopez had not flown the aircraft for 90 days and, according to regulations, had to reactivate his status before taking passengers in the plane.

The plane burst into flames upon impact and, according to the article published Aug. 10, 1970, firefighters from 11 communities were called to the scene and it took more than two hours to control the flames enough that Lopez’s body could be reached. The plane had been loaded with about 600 gallons of fuel.

Orange resident Mike Chiasson told the newspaper he was standing in the sandbowl target jumping area when he noticed the plane coming at him. Chiasson said he jumped down a 25-foot embankment and the plane was in flames about 75 yards away by the time he got to his feet. The plane crashed at the center of the airport, missing a group of parachutists preparing to take off from one end of the runway. Preparations for a meeting of the New England Timing Association, a racing group, were at the other end.

Lopez’s best friend, David Mroczek of Northfield, said they grew up together, across the street from one another on Maple Street, where Lopez operated a dairy farm after retiring from the military. Mroczek, himself a former Air Force pilot, said his buddy was “a friendly guy who would help anybody.” He stills lives in Northfield and said he plans to attend the Aug. 9 ceremony.

Perez said his uncle’s funeral was one of the biggest Northfield ever saw. He said Lopez is buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Northfield, next to Lopez’s parents.

Perez said his mother Maria, Lopez’s only sibling, also plans to attend the ceremony.

Orange Municipal Airport is at 80 Airport St.

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.




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