Dawn Elson: From aviation to entertainment engineering

Thorpe Park

19 July 2016


Dawn Elson is the Engineering Director for Merlin Entertainments Group. She has responsibility for the engineering strategy, standards, procedures and compliance of a global portfolio of around 120 theme parks and attractions. We spoke to Dawn to find out more about her engineering career and background in the aerospace industry.

Prior to working with Merlin Entertainments plc, you worked as the Head of Engineering for Gatwick Airport. Could you talk us through your journey into the world of aviation and engineering? What was it that drew you to aerospace in initially?

To be honest I really stumbled into aerospace by luck! I was always good at science subjects at school and was seeking a science-based degree to do at university. At a school’s careers fair there was a female Army officer standing next to a large cut out of a helicopter. I asked if she fixed the aircraft – oh no she said – I am in charge of the guys that fix the aircraft. That sounds like the job for me I thought! So I then looked at the Armed Forces and the RAF was offering a fabulous sponsorship at university for aerosystems engineering officers. I applied immediately!

Although you have now moved away from aviation, what developments within the field of aerospace engineering are you most excited about seeing in the future?

I think the loss of certain aircraft types is always sad – especially Concorde and with it the opportunity for supersonic commercial travel. I can recall sitting in one of the Concorde prototype aircraft shells at Filton when the Bristol University Air Squadron used to be based there – it was fabulous! But now NASA has commissioned a well-known aviation company to design a new breed of more environmentally viable and quieter supersonic aircraft called X-planes which are set for test flights in 2020. A really exciting prospect!

To what extent do you think active role models such as Tim Peake can have on influencing young people to consider a career in aerospace (or engineering as a whole)?

I think role models are absolutely essential. Engineering and aerospace careers are so interesting and diverse that it is almost impossible to do them justice in any written careers literature or over the internet. It is far more inspiring to see somebody who is living their dream and enjoying their career. Seeing it for real also broadens people’s minds to other possibilities and opportunities within engineering – role models really can light the spark!

What are some of the challenges and inspirations that you have come across in your career in engineering?

By far the biggest challenges have been when a technical failure of some kind has caused injury or harm to anybody. It is so important to know that you have put in place all of the procedures and maintenance regimes possible to guard against such issues – unfortunately sometimes though things go wrong and there is literally nothing that could have been done.

On a personal level, I have found being a woman in such a male-dominated environment very challenging at times. There have been some very difficult situations, but fortunately, these have been far outweighed by all of the amazing times and experiences!

Throughout my career, I have been inspired so many times by teams that have worked together to deliver in the face of extreme conditions or significant challenges (such as 8 engine changes over a weekend to generate aircraft following a component failure to ensure surveillance support of operations in Afghanistan). Just when you think it might be time to give up the technicians go above and beyond and have never failed to impress me.

What do you love most about your job in engineering?

Two things actually – the people and sheer breadth of engineering and all it touches. Just think about every minute of your day – I think you would find it hard to pinpoint a minute that is not impacted in some way by some form of engineering!

While engineering is a career that young people in developing countries aspire to, it is lacking in popularity in the UK. What advice would you give to young people who may be considering a career in engineering?

I think that engineering does suffer from an image problem currently; mainly due to a lack of awareness of the depth and breadth of what a career in engineering can offer. Many children and their parents see engineering as either a car mechanic or construction worker! It is essential that us engineers make everyone aware of what is really on offer – the diversity is amazing – both in terms of hands on or more cerebral jobs and in the varieties of engineering.

What role do you think international prizes such as the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering have on inspiring the future generation of engineers?

I think such prizes are a fabulous way of highlighting the amazing achievements of our engineers and lighting that spark in a potential future engineer’s eyes!

Last year you were awarded the Alastair Graham-Bryce award for your contribution towards promoting engineering as a career prospect to young adults, and especially young women. In your opinion, what do you think must be done (by engineers, the government, international prizes such as the QEPrize) to encourage young women into a career in engineering?

I think we need to show them what can truly be on offer in an engineering career. It can be creative, exciting, you can travel the world (or stay at home if you prefer!), it can be hands-on or office based, it can involve people management or you can work on your own or in a small team, it will be challenging and rewarding in equal measure and importantly girls are great at it!

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