When a youthful science student saw a girl standing next to a glider in the Great Court during O-Week, his career began to take flight.
It was love at first sight for Steve ‘Zed’ Roberton AM, and his plans to study medicine were about to take a very different trajectory.
“UQ’s Gliding Club had a glider on display and I went over because I saw a pretty girl standing near it,” he remembered.
“The glider caught my eye too, so I ended up joining the club.”
That chance encounter blossomed into a lifelong romance with flying, and a career that has taken Roberton (Bachelor of Science (Chemistry and Mathematics) ’88) to the top of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and earned him membership of the Order of Australia in 2012.
The 49-year-old Air Vice-Marshal – whose nickname ‘Zed’ was adopted as his unique pilot call-sign – has helped steer some of the RAAF’s most important strategic decisions and combat operations, rocketing through the ranks.
A decade ago, Roberton thought he had gone as far as he could with the RAAF. He had a young family with his wife Libby and UQ was calling him back because that unfulfilled dream of studying medicine persisted.
However, fate intervened in his career again when he was head-hunted to lead the RAAF’s massive $6.5 billion transition to the F/A–18F Super Hornet, which was to replace the F–111 jets.
His RAAF career trajectory had just gone supersonic.
Roberton credits UQ with providing him with foundational skills for his career.
“I learned the skills to complete what you start, to research and study effectively and discern what’s important.
In 2014, Roberton was identified to command the Air Task Group in Operation OKRA, the Australian Defence Force’s contribution to the international effort to combat the Daesh (also known as ISIL) terrorist threat in Iraq and Syria.
Australia’s contribution is being closely coordinated with the Iraqi government, Gulf nations and a broad coalition of international partners.
Early in the operation he found himself alongside many partner
nations coordinating the coalition’s air-combat effort.
“It was important we all stayed focused, making sure we understood why we were there,” he said.
During an Australian-led strike, Iraqi civilians appeared on the operations room’s surveillance screen.
Everyone in the room fell deathly quiet.
“We were horrified. A young family was running across the area we were about to bomb,” Roberton said.
“Because of the training and protocols the Australian team had in place, we managed to divert the strike point so the family escaped unscathed.
“A solemn moment of reflection and a chill down the spine followed. The presence of civilians in a war zone is a reality that the best procedures and care cannot nullify. War is a violent and ugly endeavour.”
It was a defining moment for Roberton, who reinforced that there is humanity amidst the horror, which is the quality that he wants to both drive and underpin his leadership of the men
and women of Australia’s Operational Air Force elements.
For more information about the Royal Australian Air Force, visit airforce.gov.au.