Shop Talk: Clarence F. Lee
When I first started in RC, glow power was king, and these magical engines powered every plane at the flying field. At that time, everyone had advice on how one should break in, run, and maintain a glow engine. While some of that advice was good and some
Model engine maestro
ENGINE BUILDER, TUNER, AND COMPETITOR
Clarence’s history in RC model engines is a long one, and the first thing I found out about him occurred when I sat down to talk with him: This man can recall everything. He can remember names, places, times, and even the smallest details for just about anything that has to do with engines. I have been lucky enough to interview him twice, and it was like sitting in the room with a living, breathing history book on engines and their development.
As with all things, it is best to start at the beginning. Born in Los Angeles in 1923, Clarence grew up in Glendale, California. He built his first model at the age of seven and entered the world of powered aircraft at the age of 14. He worked for a year doing odd jobs so that he could buy an unassembled 1938 Bunch Mighty Midget. After graduating from high school in 1941, he started work at Vega Aircraft Corporation (a division of Lockheed Aircraft Company). Clarence entered the Army Air Corps as an aviation cadet trainee in December 1942. He had flight time on a number of aircraft, including a PT-19, AT-10, B-25, P-38, and P-51. Clarence was assigned to the China, Burma, and India theater, where he piloted C-47s and C-46s for the combat cargo group flying the “Hump”—the Himalayas— from Burma to various airfields in China. In 1946, he was discharged from active duty and returned to the United States, but he remained in the Army Air Corps Reserve for 7 1/2 years. Once back on American soil, Clarence married his wife, Peggy. Pilots who had returned from the war a year earlier had filled all the commercial piloting jobs. So Clarence raised enough money, by cashing in some war bonds, to rent a building in Tujunga, California, and opened a floral business, where he and his wife worked for several years.
While in active service, Clarence started flying control-line models and continued until about 1956. After taking up remote control, Clarence was not happy with the power and performance of the current engines available for RC use. Because of this, he designed and
built his first Lee .45 engine just for RC planes in 1959. Clarence’s custom-made Lee engines became an instant success and were used by many of the top pattern fliers at the time. Clarence sold the rights to Veco Products, and the engine became the Veco .45. After that, Clarence was commissioned by Veco to design a number of engines, including the Veco .19, .61, and .35. Clarence regularly participated in pattern competitions for about 10 years but grew tired of the constant practicing required to be competitive. But Clarence found his calling when the new Formula I Pylon racing started. His first racing team was with his good friend Wayne Wainwright, and later he teamed up with his son, Jack Lee. At 94, Clarence considers himself “semiretired,” but he has never been one to take it easy. Having sold many thousands of custom-fit versions of K&B engines over the years, Clarence has serviced and repaired these engines as almost a full-time endeavor for some time now. He admits, however, that the emergence of electric motors has somewhat slowed down the maintenance work for glow engines (although while I was there for this interview, there were a number of repaired engines sitting on the bench ready for shipment). This is perhaps the closest Clarence has been to semi-retirement, but writing his Engine Clinic column every other month while still working on engines out in his shop during the week seems like working to me. Of course, Clarence disagrees with that; he says he is having too much fun to stop. One can say that true retirement may never be in the cards for Clarence. And all of us that depend on him to solve our engine problems, which is just about everyone I know, are very glad he is still out there sharing his knowledge with us. We thank him for that.
Here is just a small example of some of the engines in Clarence’s personal collection.
During the day, you can find Clarence working in the shop on machines that have been around for as long as he has.