Allana Corbin and her family are pushing on in life after the tragic passing of husband and father Roger. Still grieving, the family is determined to continue to live life to the full.
With the anniversary of her husband’s tragic death next week, Allana Corbin explains how she and her daughters are honouring the flying hero’s memory
Living boldly is not an option for Allana Corbin. It’s a necessity. Her late husband Roger felt the same way. Their shared sense of adventure and love of flying brought the couple together more than 20 years ago. And last year it tore them apart. As the first anniversary of well-known rescue pilot Roger’s death approaches, Allana has had plenty of time to reflect on their choices. Like their daughters, she is still grieving and heartbroken, but she never questions the path she and Roger forged.
“They say the brave don’t always live to 100, but the meek don’t live at all. And that’s my philosophy,” says the 51-year-old, whose aerial life began at 18 with hot-air ballooning, followed by parachute jumping and the pursuit of a fixed-wing licence as soon as she was able to muster the funds to pay for her lessons.
“I’ve had to acknowledge my life and lifestyle is extreme compared to most and comes with a degree of inherent risk.”
Allana survived a fatal light plane crash at the age of 23. Badly injured, she was trapped in the fallen Cessna 210 for three hours as four friends died around her. After she and a sixth passenger were finally rescued in rugged bush west of Camden, NSW, she was told spinal damage from her broken back meant she would never walk again. She faces the tragedy of Roger’s death knowing she has turned her life around once already.
Today, with the aid of lower leg braces, Allana moves competently around the Eastern Shore rental home she shares with her twin 12-year-old daughters, Isabella and Indiana, as they wait for their new home to be built at Otago Bay.
When she is out and about, Allana relies on walking sticks as well to hold and steady her against the partial paraplegia that left her with no feeling below the knees.
She speaks with the level words of a survivor. “I’ve been through a lot and had to deal with a lot in my life,” she tells TasWeekend. “And losing Roger proves to me again we are not immune to tragedy. As you go through and tackle challenges it does make you stronger, to have the tools on board to be able to cope with the things life brings.”
She shows me the mobile app she uses to track the flights made by Rotor-Lift Aviation, the business she and Roger launched in Tasmania 18 years ago when they won the contract to run the state’s emergency aviation rescue service. Though Rotor-Lift has various wings, the business model is simple at heart, she says. “If someone is hurt we help them. If they are lost we go find them. And that’s what we do on a daily basis.”
She says Roger woke every morning with a great sense of purpose. He felt privileged to play a role in saving people’s lives. It gave his life great meaning, especially with Allana having been rescued previously. “We wanted the opportunity to give something back for my own life having been saved,” she says.
At home with the girls, she followed Roger’s flights closely on the smartphone app when she knew he was out on difficult rescues. Retrieval missions could take him way out to sea, as they did 11 years ago when he flew 120 nautical miles south-west of the state to help rescue a solo sailor. And they could take him into wild terrain to rescue bushwalkers and others in trouble. He won a bravery award for a particularly challenging rescue in the freezing Central Highlands, complicated by appalling weather and loaded with the knowledge the seriously injured passengers would not survive the night unless he managed to get in.
“I’d often have sleepless nights watching him and tracking him live,” Allana says. “And there would be many nights when he would come home at some ungodly hour, having done a big rescue, and he’d turn all the lights on and he’d just have to talk. We would often be up ‘til the sun came up.”
On other tough days he’d barely speak on homecoming and head straight upstairs to run a bath. “Roger would often get himself so worked up over things and wouldn’t know where to generate that energy,” says Allana. “He’d go and run a bath and occasionally I’d hear him call down, ‘well, are you coming up?’ I knew I just needed to sit there and he just needed to talk.
“He was such a complex person. He was pretty fiery and he would go off, but I never took any of that personally because it was never directed personally. It was never a challenge to me, because I absolutely 100 per cent understood the man. I knew where he was coming from. He wasn’t a perfect person, and nor am I – there is no perfect person – but he and I were the perfect fit. We really were.”
She pulls a face of pure disgust and laughs as she tries to imagine sharing life with “a nine-to-five kind of man”.
“Roger said when we started going out ‘it’s going to be really hard being with me, but it won’t be boring’ … and he was absolutely right about that, but I never found it hard. I loved the man more than anything in the world.”
Allana was crumbing chicken for dinner in the late afternoon of November 7, 2017, when the first call came to say there had been an accident. She pulled Izzy out of a dance lesson and the girls sat with their mother on her bed waiting for news.
In the next call Allana was told one of their police crewmen was coming to see them. She knew what it meant. It was police protocol to deliver the worst news in person.
“It’s all a bit of a blur, really,” she says. “The police turned up, then a lot of other people turned up because it was in the news so quickly. I had to ring Sophia, Roger’s 21-year-old daughter.
“The events of the next week were pretty horrendous, essentially managing the children and what was going on. We had a complete blanket media in the house — no TV, no newspapers, no radio. We closed ranks around the children.”
She agonised over whether to let the girls see their dad one last time. “It was a hard call, a really hard call,” she says. “So I went to see him first. That was going to be the deciding factor. And he was beautiful. He looked like he had been in a bit of a brawl, but they’d seen him like that before.”
She laughs briefly, then her eyes shine with tears. “I agonised over it for days. I decided that if they wanted to see him, they had a right to see him. It was brutal, cruel, horrendous, but it gave them closure. He went to work and didn’t come home … It was the best decision I could have made.”
It will be a year on Wednesday since Roger was killed at Hobart Airport during a training exercise in a single-engine Squirrel helicopter. The only other occupant, pilot John Osborne, survived. The cause of the accident remains unknown, with investigations ongoing.
Roger, 57, received a hero’s farewell at a service attended by about 1000 people at the Hobart Regatta Grounds, with mourners paying tribute to his vision, generosity and flying prowess. The New Zealand-born pilot had worked in many countries and was a recipient of the National Search and Rescue Award for the many hundreds of rescues he performed in Tasmania.
At the service, Tasmania Police Commissioner Darren Hine described him as a “truly inspiring pioneer”. “He introduced capabilities that went beyond the scope of the contract to provide the Tasmanian community with the best – and I mean the best – search and rescue platform,” Hine said. “There are people all over the world, not just in Tasmania, who owe their lives to this outstanding rescue service and to Roger.”
His coffin was carried past a guard of honour formed by emergency services personnel and lifted in a rescue helicopter for his final flight.
“It was not love at first sight,” says Allana of the demanding instructor she met in 1995 tasked with approving her turbine endorsement, an extra licence qualification beyond the commercial chopper pilot licence she’d just gained.
“I didn’t like him at all. He was grumpy and yelled at me. He told me I flew like a girl.”
Allana was not going to let that rattle her, though. She had defied predictions of paralysis to walk again less than a year after her accident. A year after that she had faced her fear of flying by ‘wing-walking’ strapped to a frame atop a small Tiger Moth that flew to 1000ft. (The friend who organised her flight died doing the same stunt at the same event the next year.)
Continuing to conquer her fear in typically bold style, Allana returned briefly to fixed-wing flying before switching to rotary craft, which better suited her mobility limitations.
In 1997, she circumnavigated Australia solo by chopper, making her the first female pilot to do so, and went on to share her story in a memoir and motivational speeches.
Despite their conflict in the cockpit during her training, something had clicked along the way between Allana and Roger and they started a business relationship, buying and selling aircraft out of Sydney’s Mascot. “We were tiptoeing around the relationship for quite a while,” Allana remembers.
Eventually they succumbed and it felt so right. They hadn’t lived together, though, until they moved to Tasmania in 2000. They married in 2002 and welcomed the twins three years later.
Allana put flying on the backburner when she became a mum, but still holds her pilot’s licence. For now though her focus is on the children, the business and the goal of renewing RotorLift’s contract to deliver the service best-known to the public by its distinctive red and yellow rescue choppers sponsored by Westpac. Along with the Rotor-Lift Aviation crew, rescue teams include Ambulance Tasmania and Tasmania Police personnel.
Allana says she and Roger often talked about the future and always took a pragmatic approach to planning. “It was very much down to business for Roger and me. We had a very solid plan as to what would happen and what the expectation of each person would be if anything [changed]. We had our house in order. Everything was up to date with wills and insurances, and we were both very aware of what each person would want to happen if either of us wasn’t here.”
Those difficult conversations proved valuable when tragedy hit. “Suddenly, being in that place, there were no major decisions to make,” she says. “It was just implementing the plan.”
Out at the Rotor-Lift headquarters near Hobart Airport, the succession plan was put into place immediately, without a single interruption to the service. The commander in chief was gone, but there was still a job to do. And the team of 12 pilots, seven engineers and various office and support staff stepped up.
“Everybody had to put their [personal grief] aside and do what they had to do,” Allana says.
Roger’s death leaves Allana as sole director and owner of the business. As well as working closely with senior executives, including chief executive Susan Stanley, Allana has introduced an advisory board that meets once a month. The rescue contract remains Rotor-Lift’s core business, supplemented by a flying school, charter work, National Parks and farm commissions, aerial firefighting, a helicopter trading unit and an engineering department.
Because he was off flying so much, it often feels to his family as if Roger is just away on another trip. The heartbreaking delusion serves them in a way, allowing them to get on with everyday life, but it is a surreal sort of existence. Sophia has returned to university in Adelaide where she is studying arts/law. The girls are in their final term of Year 7, Izzy at St Michael’s Collegiate and Indiana at The Friends’ School, and turn 13 this month.
Family milestone dates have been particularly hard on them. “We keep saying ‘Phew, we got through that’,” says Allana. “Father’s Day was horrendous. We were at each other’s throats, but we acknowledged it. We ended up going out for tea, but it was a tough day.”
Altering their traditions on special days so the gaping hole doesn’t seem quite as obvious seems to help a bit, but Allana believes only time will ease the pain and allow them to readjust.
“The anniversary next week is going to be another tough day. But my theory is we will have had one year of significant dates without him, and that’s the start of us establishing our new normal. Around year three, that will be our normal. That’s how I think this will play out and that is what we are working towards.”
One of her own wishes for year two is to stop getting sick. She puts the months-long cluster of migraine headaches and bout of Bell’s palsy nerve paralysis she suffered this year down to stress. She hasn’t spent a single day in bed, though. She makes sure she gets to the gym most days to build her strength and fitness.“Roger and I have always adopted the attitude that you just got to keep going, whatever happens.”
Navigating the children through grief is wrenching and calls on all her resources. “I worked out pretty quickly that if I am OK, they are OK,” she says. “To a certain point you have to put your own grief on the shelf, and my grieving has always been away from the kids. We’ve had moments where we’ve all just lost it together, but on a day-to-day basis I just have to be a solid unit. If I start to lose it, then they are scared. They’ve lost one parent. The one they have with them has to be as solid as a rock, so that’s what I am, as solid as a rock for them.”
Sometimes, Allana says with a laugh, what she misses most is simply Roger telling the girls “Will you listen to your mother”. Trying to fill the roles of two parents is challenging. “Being a mum, dad and everything in between is a hard job, especially when children are grieving and you have to find the balance between disciplining them and providing support and guidance, especially when they are at such a critical age.”
She strays between past and present tenses as she tries to encompass Roger’s many, sometimes contradictory, dimensions, and the many aspects of him they miss.
“Roger was a very passionate person,” she begins. “And he was very determined and the most intelligent person I have ever met. He was hilarious and he had the best sense of humour ever. But he was extreme. Everything he did was extreme. He worked extremely hard, he partied extremely hard.
“He was so compassionate and giving of himself. If someone was distraught, he knew exactly what to do or say, which was sometimes to say nothing. He was nurturing. He was the most generous person. We’d go out to dinner and he was always the first to go and pay the bill for everybody. He’d give the shirt off his back. I’ve seen it…”
And as much as he was inspirational and a born teacher, he could be exhausting and difficult to deal with, too.
“He often rubbed people up the wrong way,” she says. “He was a visionary and he could see how things had to be done and he got so frustrated at times.”
And he could be hard to work for. “He demanded excellence and would settle for nothing less. He had very high expectations of himself and he expected those around him to have those same standards. He was a hard taskmaster. He was often misinterpreted as being arrogant, but it was more passion than arrogance.
“If anything went wrong, Roger would take it personally. The buck stopped with him and he owned that responsibility. As for safety, he was so vigilant. If he walked into the hangar and the floor was dusty or dirty or had oil on it, he would go berserk. He always said ‘if you can’t get this right, you are not going to get anything right’. Everything has to be immaculate. And that’s how he ran the business.”
Some days it’s Roger’s sense of fun and wildness they miss the most. “He brought a lot of adventure to our world,” she says. “He was very much an outdoor man, with the fishing, boating and camping. And he was spontaneous. He loved surprising us. On special days, he wouldn’t just come home with flowers, he’d have some bizarre exotic event he’d have conjured up, so leftfield you never knew what was coming.”
Most of all, they just miss everyday life with him.
Allana says it was hard for the three girls to walk through the grief so publicly when Roger died, with extensive media coverage on the loss of the local hero in dramatic circumstances.
“The girls all conducted themselves with great strength and dignity and were a comfort to me in the darkest of days. As heartbreaking as it is to lose Roger so young, he would want us to go on and live fulfilling lives. He wanted nothing more than for us to be happy.”
At the time, Izzy publicly revealed her wish to become a pilot, an ambition her mother supports. “It is who we are and what we do,” says Allana. “Look at her parents. How am I going to fight that one? If that’s her passion, then I support her 100 per cent… and I can tell you she will be given every resource to become the highest-trained pilot on this planet.”
The strength of family has proved an immeasurable comfort, as has the support of friends and the community over the past year as Allana and the girls make their way back towards the light.
“That happiness is out there in the fog somewhere and as each day passes, we are one day closer to seeing brighter days.”
Keeping Roger’s legacy alive is her driving inspiration. She is hugely invested in the goal of renewing the rescue contract and continuing to help save lives. “I will give it everything I’ve got,” she says. “I don’t know anything else. I don’t want to do anything else. This is our whole world.”
Allana with daughters Indiana, left, Izzy and late husband Roger in Strahan in March last year.
Clockwise from left: Allana Corbin ‘wingwalking’ on a Tiger Moth; with her late husband Roger at their former home at Otago, where she is building again; Roger using hi-tech night-vision goggles; and the loving pair. “He and I were the perfect fit. We really were.”