Local lieutenant sweeps awards at pilot school, returns home to live his dream

2nd Lt. Charles Conder, from the 729 Airlift Squadron at March Air Reserve Base, stands in front of the “Spirit of Ronald Reagan” C-17.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Amy Abbott, 452 AMW/PA)

2nd Lt. Charles Conder, from the 729 Airlift Squadron at March Air Reserve Base, stands in front of the “Spirit of Ronald Reagan” C-17. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Amy Abbott, 452 AMW/PA)

2nd Lt. Charles Conder, from the 729 Airlift Squadron at March Air Reserve Base, stands in front of the “Spirit of Ronald Reagan” C-17. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Amy Abbott, 452 AMW/PA)

2nd Lt. Charles Conder, from the 729 Airlift Squadron at March Air Reserve Base, stands in front of the “Spirit of Ronald Reagan” C-17. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Amy Abbott, 452 AMW/PA)

MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, CALIF. -- When Charles Conder III was a child, he rode his bike to the top of the hill by the old weapons storage area and look down at March Field in awe watching as KC-10s would fire up their engines and fly off into the somber sky, daydreaming of one day being a pilot. Today, after recently graduating top of his class during pilot training, that dream has long since become a reality. 

In February of this year, he returned after more than a year of training, to March Air Reserve Base as a second lieutenant, C-17 pilot and part of the 729th Airlift Squadron - doing the job he loves with the people he once, as a child, watched from afar. 

Lieutenant Conder was born at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., two minutes before his twin sister, Pam. The son of now retired Maj. Charles Conder, Jr., he grew up around the military. Unbeknown to them at the time, one day both he and his sister would choose to follow in their father's footsteps as military officers, Lieutenant Conder in the Air Force Reserve and Ensign Conder, an intelligence officer in the Navy. 

"I always knew I wanted to fly," said Lieutenant Conder. "I always wanted to join the military. I loved growing up as an Air Force brat. I was wrestling between the military and airlines, and at the time, I knew nothing about the Reserve." 

In 1986, when the twins were in preschool, the Conder family moved to Southern California as Major Conder began a new job at the 15th Air Force Command Post, which was then at March. The kids grew up about seven miles from the base. Before long, the family had fallen in love with both the sunny weather and the close knit community, never to move again. 

Around the time of middle school, Lieutenant Conder had developed a definite affection for flying, something his father had already noticed. In an effort to make that dream a reality and with his father's support, while still in high school, he began working a side job and taking flying classes. 

"We used to play all kinds of flying games, computer games and stuff like that when I was growing up," he said. "I think my dad probably knew I wanted to fly before I did. He told me he and my mom could see it in my face and my expressions." 

On his seventeenth birthday, Lieutenant Conder received his private pilot's license, making him the youngest person from Riverside Air Service to do so. 

After graduating from John W. North High School in Riverside with the class of 2000, he went on to San Jose State University. In college, he worked three jobs while earning his instrument rating commercial rating, and multi-engine rating for flying, then graduated Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelors of Science in aviation. Before he earned his diploma, he already had made up his mind about his future. 

After March had become a Reserve base in 1996, Lieutenant Conder began to learn a lot about those dubbed "Weekend Warriors" and realized it gave him the opportunity to stay close to home, be in the military and fly rather frequently -- the decision was an easy one. 

"In the Reserve, I get to stay here and, having lived in Southern California for 20 years, this is where I want to be. It is just such a tight knit community, especially on this base. That is the thing I like most about the Reserve," he said. 

And so began the process of putting together his packet for the unit he was applying to and preparing for his interview. Out of the handful of people interviewed, Mr. Happy, as his squadron has pinned as one of his call signs, was one of only two selected. 

"We, as a unit, interview many highly qualified people to fill our undergraduate pilot training slots," said Maj. Kenneth H. Goode Jr., assistant operations officer for the 729th AS. "Charles fits the caliber of person we hire at the 729th AS. Our hiring standards, as you can imagine, are quite strict. We have many applicants vying for pilot slots ... many interview, very few are selected." 

After being selected by the squadron, Lieutenant Conder attended Officer Training School, graduated in 2005 gaining his commission and then began 54 weeks of intense pilot training. Upon arrival, he found out he was the lowest ranking and one of only two guys to have gone through OTS, the rest having come from the Academy or ROTC. On top of that, he was a Reservist and many of the young lieutenants were unfamiliar with that aspect of the military. 

"They didn't have much respect for me and I was the brunt of a lot of jokes," said Lieutenant Conder. "And so my mentality was that I am going to prove you guys wrong. I'm going to show you how well I can do. That was kind of a driving factor. I took it with a grain of salt and used it as motivation." 

He graduated top of his class taking all five of the five awards available; excellence in leadership, academic excellence, the flying training award, distinguished graduate and the Air Education and Training Command graduate. 

"We have had quite a few pilots graduate from Air Force UPT earning many of the prestigious awards, but few are able to earn every possible award," said Major Goode, who flew in to attend Lieutenant Conder's graduation. He said the senior officer pilots at the 729th try to attend all of their pilots UPT graduations. 

"But don't ask the pilots in this squadron about those awards, you'll only get sarcasm and a few crass remarks. Behind the sarcasm and jokes, however, you'll get a head nod. A head nod that says everyone here is proud of Lieutenant Charles Conder III. Every U.S. Air Force UPT graduate knows the owner of those awards has put forth a significant amount of effort to earn them." 

Lieutenant Conder brought up two factors that helped him do well in pilot's school, one being those first couple days of training when he realized the odds were not in his favor, and the other being his sister. He credits Ensign Conder with instilling in him the desire to be the best he could possibly be and teaching him to always strive for success. 

"The number one factor, I would say, has always been my sister. From early on in grade school, when we received O's for outstanding and S's for satisfactory -- all the way back then is how early my sister and I were competing," said Lieutenant Conder. "I thought, 'well, I'm two minutes older than her, so I have to do better,' and that drive set in as early as the first grade ... in fifth grade, I realized she was always going to do better than me, but it still annoys me when I don't get an A . From then, I always tried to do the best I could." 

Now that he is back at March with a unit he said he both respects and admires, he can't seem to keep his feet on the ground. Over the last couple of weeks, he has been flying back and forth to Germany having spent less than a week in his new Moreno Valley home. 

He and his sister continue to keep the competition alive, but these days, rather than compare middle school grades, they brag about who has been to the most states or visited the most unique countries. Now living what had started as a childhood dream, he still has many aspirations and is fully aware there is much more to learn. 

"Every day brings something different and every situation brings something that has to be handled differently -- you have to know or you have to work through," said Lieutenant Conder. "I want to understand it all. There's so much I don't know. Our squadron director of operations quoted me something when I got back here. He told me, 'you know what the biggest thing you can learn is? That you don't know what you don't know.'"