The IHST, The Elephant, The Rider and The Path

A lot of smart, highly experienced helicopter people are frustrated. Since its inception in 2006, a lot of work has been done for the International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST) with the goal of preventing accidents, but helicopters are still crashing from entirely preventable causes. Some IHST supporters have asked, “How do we fix stupid?” Others ask, “How can we reach the people who own and operate their own helicopters and don’t come to our safety conferences?” Psychology, neuroscience and a simple analogy about riding elephants may hold the key.

Here is why you need to know something about this potential key to preventing more accidents. Helicopters save lives and enable work that would be difficult or impossible by other means. Despite their vital role in society, the public perception of helicopters is not as positive as it might be if the industry could improve its safety record. Despite recent progress, there are still far too many accidents occurring for all-too-familiar reasons. These accidents can be prevented!

There are over 500 people from all around the world doing volunteer work for the IHST. The IHST’s regional teams have analyzed over 1,000 helicopter accidents and produced toolkits, brochures, fact sheets, videos and other materials to promote the best accident prevention methods identified by those analyses. Since the IHST’s inception and all this work, the number of helicopter accidents happening around the world each year has declined, but with people still dying in preventable accidents, there is still much more to be done.

If you look at the body of work done by the IHST and made available for free on its website ( you might conclude with an objective mindset that the IHST has clearly identified the most common causes of helicopter accidents and provided more-than-sufficient means to prevent those accidents. The IHST has indeed made a compelling case for improved helicopter safety, but that case has been tailored to the conscious, logical mind. Recent research in psychology and neuroscience show us, however, that at least 95% of the decisions we make every day do not engage our conscious minds. Most of our decisions take place instinctively in our unconscious minds.

In two books[1] Psychologist Jonathan Haidt offers a useful analogy, which points to what might be missing from the approach taken so far by the IHST. Haidt likens our unconscious minds to an elephant and our conscious minds to an elephant rider. The rider can train the elephant and influence its direction, but when rider and elephant come into conflict about which way to go, the elephant wins. Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch uses Haidt’s analogy and describes how to train the elephant to follow the rider’s desired path.

The IHST has been talking and writing to the elephant rider, but appears to have failed to reach, in an effective way, the elephant. It is time to acknowledge the “elephant in the room.”


The book Switch offers key steps for directing the rider, motivating the elephant and shaping the path for the elephant (see Attachment 1). Having already given lots of direction for the rider, the IHST might gain the most by focusing on the steps for motivating the elephant and shaping the path.

The Heath brothers suggest that the first step for motivating the elephant is to “Find The Feeling”. They give examples of how behavior changes were caused by getting people to see and feel, firsthand, the results of the actions that need to change. In the commercial helicopter industry this approach will likely need to show the key actors (owners, pilots, and maintenance technicians) the very human and vulnerable side of the trusting customers who use their services. In the case of individuals who fly their own helicopters, this approach will likely need to show the potential impacts on the families and friends who depend on these pilots to get home safely.

The Heath brothers’ second step for motivating the elephant is to “Shrink The Change”. The IHST has already focused on four key areas for accident prevention (Safety Management Systems, training, systems & equipment, and maintenance practices). To follow the Heath brothers’ advice for motivating the elephant, it might be best to narrow the focus on just one thing that will do the most good. With personal/private operators being the source of the most accidents, perhaps preflight risk assessment is the one thing that needs the most emphasis for now.

The third step for motivating the elephant is to “Grow Your People.” For the IHST, this means creating a sense of identity around safe helicopter flying. Emirates Airline’s Human Factors Manager, Nicklas Dahlstrom, once observed during a meeting of the IHST’s Middle East & North Africa (MENA) team that the pride of the helicopter profession seems to be in overcoming great risks to do heroic deeds. Nicklas urged the IHST to find ways to make safety the pride of the helicopter profession.

The Heath brothers’ advice on shaping the path for the elephant might help create a sense of identity around safety in the helicopter industry. Their advice aligns with the advice given by Charles Duhigg in his book The Power Of Habit.   Safety Management Systems (SMS), training programs, maintenance practices and systems and equipment like health & usage monitoring systems (HUMS) and flight data monitoring (FDM) programs can “tweak the environment” and build habit-strength safe behaviors. Leadership is key to “rally the herd” behind safety.

The IHST has done the analysis to justify its recommendations. The IHST has provided the tools to appeal to the elephant rider and those tools can build the path for changing the elephant’s behavior. Consistent with the promotion element required in SMSs, the IHST and all those who support it must do more to motivate the elephant. We must connect to deep emotions and challenge the beliefs that lead to unsafe behaviors. We must focus on the key change that will do the most good and lead to other supporting changes – like tipping over the first domino in a line of dominoes. Along the way, we must use our best marketing skills to make safety the pride of the helicopter industry.

[1] The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom and The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Attachment 1


2 thoughts on “The IHST, The Elephant, The Rider and The Path

  1. Hi Bob,

    Good to hear from you! I hope all is well on your side.

    Thanks – I am honored to be mentioned in the blog and I would certainly be happy to further develop the point made. I think that when you live with many risks around you – as you do in many helicopter operations (off shore, in remote areas and wilderness, in unstable and unsafe countries etc.) there is also a problem of comparative risk. (This is the field of risk perception which is really not my expertise, but let me try with this point.) What I mean is that if you are surrounded by risk, taking another one does seem like an incremental and not so dangerous decision and does not stand out as a red flag of increased operational risk. If you are flying helicopters in a risky place and are accompanied to your aircraft by armed guards, if you see people taking great risk at oil platforms (divers, people on boats etc.), if you are saving people from fires etc. – then operational decisions such as flying a bit lower, taking off with a technical problem etc. probably seems like a relatively minor risk in comparison. Whereas it would stand out greatly in the safe environment of an airline operation. So I believe that increasing risk awareness and building safety culture in helicopter operation is linked to the environment of the operation, the company culture and that it is important to have reflective conversations on this with crew. Also, if the company in general focus on safety in all aspects then the comparative risk in helicopter operations may start to sand out more and increase awareness can follow. With my limited knowledge about heli ops I would probably have the concept of comparative risk as one of fundamental themes if I was asked to go in and work with safety in this type of operations, with the aim of changing their own narrative, self-perspective and to re-calibrate the awareness of risk.

    I have made this argument previously when visiting South Africa, about their GA accidents. In a country where you live behind fences and bars, where a car breaking down may mean a risk to your life, where you are surrounded by risk in daily life etc. it is probably difficult to recalibrate your sense of risk and say that flying in between those mountains is risky – risky compared to what? Not compared to going through some areas in Johannesburg at night. The argument of comparative risk resonated greatly with people there and I think it may be useful to explore further for conversation and training also in helicopter operations.

    However one point about you blog text, I am not and never have been a psychologist so “Human Factors researcher” would probably fit better in the text. Not that it matters much but I just don’t want to be seen as claiming credentials that I do not have.

    I am hoping to get to see you again this autumn at the WFP conference. Next for me is a conference in Seoul in two weeks time.

    Again, thank you for mentioning me and I am hoping to stay in contact with you I am always willing to cooperate with other experts in the field of safety.

    All the best,

  2. Cultural Health and Mitigation Program for Safety (CHAMPS). Launched by the National EMS Pilots Association. 22 programs participating. Gives leaders the ability to assess their culture and deploy resources to improve their Safety Culture.

    Enroute Decision Point (EDP). Currently set to launch by the National EMS Pilots Association (NEMSPA). Will give pilots the a tool to ensure better outcomes in deteriorating weather conditions.

    These programs as well as the No pressure initiative of 2009 can and are making a difference in the industry. Support them.

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