Chatting with the chairman – part two: an interview with Captain Steve Hawkins

In this two-part interview, Diana Spencer talks to Professor Simon Wright and Captain Steve Hawkins ahead of their lecture for Alpha OmegaIn this two-part interview, Diana Spencer talks to Professor Simon Wright and Captain Steve Hawkins ahead of their lecture for Alpha Omega.

In the first part of the interview we heard from Professor Simon Wright. Today we hear from Captain Steve Hawkins.

Captain Steve Hawkins is an experienced aviation professional with extensive training and managerial experience at senior levels in UK aviation.

He began his career flying fast jets in the RAF, transitioning to a career in commercial aviation in 1994. Steve joined the British Airways in 1996. He has held the position of training captain on the Boeing 737, 757/767, 747 and 787 during his career to date. He currently flies and trains on the 787.

In parallel, he has had a career in senior management with BA, managing pilot training on many of BA’s fleets. Between 2012 and 2019 he held the role of chief training pilot. This made him responsible for the policy, management and delivery of all BA’s pilot and cabin crew training. Also, he ran the simulator training facility and oversaw training in many other areas of the company.

How did you get involved with dentistry?

Steve Hawkins (SH): My close friend Professor Trevor Burke has an underlying interest in aviation. I have always thought that if I was to go back in my life, I would pursue a medical career.

Following some lively dinner party conversations, he persuaded me to write about ‘human factors’ and the open reporting culture in aviation and how they might translate into dentistry.

Some of aviation’s learning regarding human factors, reporting and creating feedback loops has transferred into the medical profession. Specifically in the area of surgery. There doesn’t seem to have been a similar transfer of knowledge or sharing of learning in the dental profession. This was the catalyst for me to get involved.

I did some work with the GDC a year or so ago; it was looking at a rejuvenated syllabus for CPD. I felt at the time that perhaps the GDC needed to do a PR job on itself to get people to view it as other than a disciplinary organisation. It needs to change so people can report their experiences and learnings, without feeling unfairly threatened by disciplinary process.

Professor Burke and I have tried to instigate a feature titled ‘I learnt about dentistry from that’. It was based on the articles with a similar approach found in many aviation safety publications.

The concept is all about peer-to-peer sharing of lessons – both good and bad – in an open and unthreatened environment. So far, the uptake has been limited. This perhaps points to the concerns of dental professionals, regarding sharing of information openly.

What excites you most about aviation?

SH: Aviation, much like dentistry, is about people undertaking relatively difficult technical tasks. They are often under time pressure and coping with the management of unexpected events.

Both professions are similar, in that careers start with people undertaking intensive training programmes. They are in themselves hard to get into. After that phase of a career, both pilots and dentists perform relatively unsupervised, with a high degree of responsibility to maintain and develop their standards of performance.

The challenge is: how do you make people stay engaged with personal development and share information and learning together?

When I was running training at BA, we evolved our training philosophy. It included more emphasis on ‘how’ people perform the tasks expected of them, as well as assessing ‘what’ they do.

If you can develop a strong and robust set of competencies, you can apply this to the effective management of complex situations. You are much more likely to achieve consistently high standards of performance, relative to just focusing on the training of a narrow and specific set of technical skills.

How do you unwind?

SH: Right now, I am halfway through Stephen Fry’s book Mythos. I sat next to him on a recent flight from the USA and we got talking about it – which prompted this.

I do as much physical exercise as I can. As a consequence of COVID-19 restrictions, I have struggled through gym sessions in my garage.

As well as this, I enjoy building and DIY. This has led me to renovate several properties. I am currently in the process of looking for a plot of land to build on. I’m in need a new challenge!

What advice would you offer an upcoming dental student?

SH: Firstly, if dentists are anything like pilots, there is a risk. This has certainly been identified in aviation.

Around two years after finishing initial training, the risk of making errors when dealing with challenging situations significantly increases.

In aviation, there is a demonstrable increase in error and risk taking. People’s confidence can exceed their experience and skill around this time. There is a consequent need to mitigate for that within our safety culture.

A degree of self-awareness is required. Also, a willingness to ask advice and possibly get a sanity check as we learn from experience and our peers.

Let’s face it, we can learn from people’s experience almost by osmosis.

I’ve often said that a successful career in aviation is all about effective plagiarism! By the time one becomes a captain, it’s as if one has stored away in the back pocket many examples of how not to do things and also what really works well, having learnt by watching how your peers and seniors have dealt with issues.

As professionals, we are generally very good at analysing when things haven’t gone well and working out why.

What we are less good at is working out why things have gone really well. We can then work out how to reproduce success on a regular and reliable basis (how to be consciously competent, for example).

We need people to grow their strengths and not just diminish their weaknesses.

Mentoring and training from experienced dentists in Alpha Omega will definitely contribute to this and open doors of opportunity.

What’s been your greatest challenge to date?

SH: While working in senior management roles at British Airways it was balancing the financial pressures of a big company against the cost of maintaining and continuously improving training and safety standards.

As in most professions, it’s quite difficult to articulate to an accountant (for instance), the value of investments in safety and training. The tangible benefits of high standards and the benefit of investing in them are often only appreciated in retrospect.

Who was your mentor?

SH: In the BA senior management training programme, I had an executive training coach. She had no aviation experience but was able to ask open questions that made me stop, think and review my assumptions.

Often speaking with someone who isn’t necessarily an expert in your field can be useful. They won’t assume or pre-judge what you do and how you do it. They can challenge and offer advice from an unbiased and impartial perspective.

That’s certainly made me reconsider how I do things and think outside the box, rather than stay in my comfort zone.

What’s the funniest thing that’s happened to you?

SH: Well, there have been many events. I did get struck by lightning while flying a 737 once while coming into Marseilles.

Afterwards, I looked across at my poor co-pilot who was completely frozen and ashen faced. We eventually landed and all the passengers got off. I then had to accompany an engineer to inspect the top of the tail that had been damaged by the lightning, on a high lift platform.

The passengers looking out of the terminal window to see the captain of their return flight to London, then getting soaked as a thunderstorm arrived and looking fairly concerned by the lightning that was flashing, certainly seemed to cause some amusement!

There was also dealing with the ‘boisterous’ members of the Team GB ladies hockey team. I flew them back from the Rio 2016 Olympics and listened to the whole aircraft singing the national anthem as I played it over the PA from my iPad as we departed. Safe to say there have been many more…

What do you think about dentistry and dentists?

SH: The impression, as an outsider and dental patient, is that dentistry is a profession that has a sense of infallibility. That standards and expectations are very high and that making mistakes isn’t an option.

I do think that dentistry would benefit at an individual and organisational level from more readily accepting the fact that people will make mistakes. That admitting to mistakes and learning from them is an essential part of achieving continued improvements in standards.

I get a sense that normal behaviour seems to be not admitting to failures. It’s a weakness according to some.

Whereas turning this around is actually a sign of long-term strength for the profession. To share your experience for the benefit of others is a great gift.

I also get a sense that things aren’t helped by the perception that the regulatory bodies within dentistry are more interested in their role of investigating mistakes, applying sanctions and apportioning blame, rather than creating an open atmosphere that acknowledges the benefit of open reporting and effective learning from events.

I do acknowledge the fact that most dentists are self-employed, in businesses that are relatively vulnerable – especially financially. That sense of threat needs to be moderated or rationalised. The lead in this needs to come from the regulatory authorities to create positive change.

Do you have any regrets?

SH: When I left the RAF many years ago, I very nearly went to medical school. I’ve always wondered whether I should have done that.

Watch Captain Hawkins and Professor Wright discussing ‘Human factors in clinical practice’ live on Zoom on 9 February – register online at

You can read the first part of this interview here.

This article first appeared in Dentistry Magazine. You can read the latest issue here.

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