Dawn Childs (formerly Elson)

Dawn Childs MA MDA BEng CEng FIMechE FRAeS

Dawn Elson photo

Dawn Elson is the Group Engineering Director for Merlin Entertainments Group with responsibility for engineering standards, practices and processes of the worldwide portfolio of more than 100 theme parks, resorts and attractions. Previously she was at Gatwick Airport as the Business Transformation Leader, leading a series of transformational airline terminal moves and capital projects and previously the Head of Engineering, responsible for all of the infrastructure and technical services at the airport. She joined Gatwick in 2012 after 23 years as an Engineering Officer in the RAF; which meant not only the transition from military to civilian business, but also the transition from aeronautical engineering to infrastructure and services support. During her time in the RAF she held various positions including: Head of Engineering at RAF Waddington looking after the Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance aircraft fleets; Deputy Chief Engineer for the Air Transport and Air to Air Refuelling aircraft fleets; Logistics Transformation Programme Lead for Air Command; and the Senior Engineer for 216 Squadron. Dawn has an MBA from Cranfield University, an MA in Defence Studies from Kings College London and a BEng in Mechanical Engineering from Bath University. She is also a Fellow of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, the Institute of Civil Engineers, the Royal Aeronautical Society and the Women’s Engineering Society and works as an Ambassador at Alton College.

In 1997 she was awarded the RAF Barrie Smart Memorial Award and consequently gained her pilots licence and in 2013 she won a CBI and RealBusiness First Women Award in the Tourism and Leisure Category for being the first Head of Engineering at a major International Airport. In July 2014 she was made an Honorary Doctor of Science by Staffordshire University for services to engineering and she was also recognised as one of the Barclays Women of Achievement for 2014. In June 2015 she was presented with the Alastair Graham Bryce Award by the Institution of Mechanical Engineering for her contribution to the promotion of engineering to children, students, young adults and particularly women. A keen equestrienne; she was the Chairman of RAF Equitation for many years and competed at the Inter-Services level in Show Jumping and Eventing.

SHE’S AN ENGINEER PROFILE

 At school I wasn’t entirely sure what career path to take; sciences were my strongest group of subjects but nothing specific had seized my imagination as a future job. Fortunately for me inspiration came in 2 forms at just the right time. Firstly, a publication listing potential university sponsorships turned up in the school library; and secondly there was a careers’ fair. In the sponsorship booklet by far the longest list of potential sponsors was annotated against engineering degrees – this made me think that engineering might be a good bet! Then at the career fair there was a military stand with a female Army engineering officer. She explained to me that as an engineering officer in the military you didn’t actually fix anything yourself, but directed maintenance activity and made technical judgments. This really appealed to me, as I didn’t want to get my hands dirty for the rest of my life!

Having applied for several sponsorships I was fortunate to be offered the most lucrative one, a permanent commission with the Royal Air Force (RAF). The bit that I didn’t really think about though was the fact that at the age of 17 I had actually signed up for 21 years service with the RAF – longer than I had lived! Considering that I hadn’t really planned my career I managed to choose very well with the constant move from posting to posting in the RAF suiting my thirst for frequent new challenges.

 Over a 23 year career in the RAF I took 3 degrees - a BEng in Mechanical Engineering at Bath University, an MBA at Cranfield University and an MA in Defence Studies at King’s College London; undertook over 30 different training courses ranging from quality assurance to aircraft structural integrity; and had 13 different postings – some leading teams of technicians keeping aircraft flying and others writing governance or re-designing maintenance strategies. Every single posting was challenging and interesting but by far the best was my tour as the Officer Commanding Engineering Wing at RAF Waddington. I had a team of nearly 1000 technicians and 5 different fleets of intelligence and surveillance aircraft (spy planes!). Unfortunately after that job the governance roles didn’t seem quite the same and it was time to look for a new challenge outside of the RAF.

 One thing that my numerous jobs in the RAF had taught me was that, no matter what your technical discipline, as an engineering manager you need to be able to understand what the technicians explain to you – they are the experts on the system, aircraft or installation – and then be able to make sound decisions or judgments.  Consequently, when a role at Gatwick Airport came up looking after airport services and infrastructure I felt confident that I would be able to do it. Although it was a step back in terms of responsibility, it was a way to prove myself in civilian business as opposed to the military environment. My gamble in leaving the RAF really paid of when just 6 weeks after starting at Gatwick I was able to secure the Head of Engineering role - an equally fast paced and challenging job as Waddington but looking after the airport instead of the planes. No two days are the same……

 So if, like I was, you are good at sciences and fancy a challenging and varied career, then take a look at engineering. There are so many choices in subject and discipline and never ending variety from hands on practical application to research and design – the possibilities are endless!