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 Airplane News - - CONTENTS - By John Reid

Model en­gine mae­stro


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.

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