How Things Work: The Ouija Board

Think of a shipboard chess game with airplanes instead of pawns.

Airman Timothy Johnson
Airman Timothy Johnson (at left) and Lieutenant Alan Proctor update the "ouija board" after a launch from the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. MCSN David Danals, USN

Guys gathered around a table, playing with toy airplanes: It’s a scene you’d expect to find in the back of a comic book store frequented by geeky teenagers. But it’s happening 24 hours a day on u.s. aircraft carriers around the globe. the guys standing ARound the table are U.S. Navy officers, and the little models they’re playing with represent multi-million-dollar aircraft. They’re manning the “ouija board,” a system they use to track every move of every airplane on a carrier.

“The ouija board is one of the most critical tools we have in coordinating flight operations,” says Lieutenant Commander Ray Spradlin, aircraft handler aboard the USS Enterprise. It’s a replica of the carrier’s flight deck and hangar deck, on a scale of 1/16 inch to one foot. The board is about six feet long and two and a half feet wide, about the size of a large coffee table, with the flight deck on top and the hangar bay underneath, like a second shelf. Scattered over both surfaces are small templates representing aircraft, made to the same scale, “so in theory, anything that’ll fit on the ouija board in flight deck control will fit out on the flight deck or in the hangar bay,” Spradlin says.

A carrier flight deck is a dangerous place, with huge machines in constant motion, screaming jet exhausts, spinning rotors, flexing steel cables, powerful catapults, and men and women working amid it all. To avoid disaster, it’s crucial to know what’s happening where and when. The ouija board provides a real-time snapshot of the whereabouts of the approximately 70 aircraft on board.

To represent crucial data on each airplane, such as its armament, maintenance needs, and mission status, “we use low-tech gadgets like thumbtacks, nuts and bolts, wing nuts, and washers,” Spradlin says. There’s no standard system of marking the airplane templates. “Every carrier has their own plan. What means something on one carrier may mean something different on another carrier. For the most part, we all keep track of the same information; we just may use a green pin for a first-go aircraft on one carrier, and the green pin on another carrier may mean something else.”

The ouija board is the centerpiece of Flight Deck Control, located on the flight deck level of the “island,” the structure that towers above the starboard carrier deck amidships. “It’s one of the busiest spaces on the ship during flight operations,” says Spradlin. Air crew, maintenance personnel, “everybody that works on the flight deck is constantly in and out of there, keeping track of information,” all of which the aircraft handler records on the board. 

Information includes how airplanes are parked on the flight deck. “Most aircraft are parked along the outer edge of the flight deck with their tails extending out over the water to conserve deck space,” says Spradlin. “Sometimes crews have to do maintenance on the rudder or the elevator or something that would normally be out over the water. Putting an orange tack on an aircraft template on the ouija board tells us that an aircraft needs to be parked with its tail over the flight deck.” 

Using the ouija board, the airplane handler oversees everyone involved in moving aircraft, including the “blue shirts,” who chock airplane tires and chain them down, the “yellow shirts,” who direct airplanes taxiing on deck, and the elevator operators, who move aircraft back and forth between the flight deck and the hangar deck. “We have four elevators, and we’re capable of taking two aircraft at a time on each elevator,” Spradlin says. “The hangar bay on this ship is divided into two bays. On the new Nimitz-class carriers they have three hangar bays. We can store about 27 to 29 aircraft in our hangar bay.” The rest, of course, are either out on the flight deck or on a mission. On the flight deck, airplanes are moved with small tractors, while “in the hangar bay we move the aircraft around with what we call spotting dollies, three-wheeled tractor-type contraptions with hydraulic arms.” And back in Flight Deck Control, every move is recorded on the ouija board.

The aircraft handler keeps the “air boss” updated with the data he needs to run flight operations from Primary Flight Control (Pri-Fly), several decks above, atop the island. “We have people in the hangar bay and flight deck physically controlling the aircraft, but the person in charge of all that and making sure that the aircraft get where we need them to be is the handler,” says the Enterprise’s air boss, Captain Ryman Shoaf. “If I see something on the deck and I don’t understand why it’s happening, then I can call down to Ray and he’ll just look at the ouija board and tell me.”

The ouija board system has been around since World War II, when the aircraft carrier came into its own as a warship, and hasn’t changed much since then. While practically everything else aboard the Navy’s warships is operated with state-of-the-art computers and digital technology, there’s a compelling reason that the ouija board remains so low-tech.

“Computers are nice, having electronic equipment is nice, but if you ever take any sort of battle damage, the first thing that’s going to go out is all those powered systems,” says Shoaf. With the ouija board, “if ship’s power goes down, you don’t lose a thing. It’s still right there in front of you. It’s cheap, it’s reliable, and it’s been working for the last 60 years. It’s an effective system, there’s no real reason to update it and make it computerized, so nobody has.” Anyone who has lost a document on a computer can appreciate that thinking.

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