Low-Tech ‘Ouija Boards’ Have Helped Aircraft Carriers Operate for Decades

September 1, 2023Matt Fratus
Ouija Board aircraft carrier

Flight Deck Handling Officer, Lt. Cmdr. Daryl Walls assigned to the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy, monitors overall operation on the Ouija board during flight operations in the Arabian Gulf, on Sept. 22, 2004. US Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2 Class Michael Sandberg.

Inside the tower overlooking the flight deck of a United States Navy aircraft carrier is a scene of bustling activity. Much of the action is centered around the “Ouija board,” a tabletop replica of the flight deck below. About 6-feet long, 2.5-feet wide, and standing waist-high, the board tracks real-time movements of aircraft and personnel on the ship. Despite being relatively low-tech, it is an essential component in coordinating seaborne air operations. 

Safety on board an aircraft carrier is of extreme importance. The constant routine of aircraft taking off from and landing on the flight deck is inherently risky. Sailors work amid myriad hazards, from the incinerating heat of jet engines and spinning rotor blades to high-powered catapults and taut steel cables. On the Ouija board, each of the 70 to 80 aircraft are rendered in miniature and placed to match their actual location. Each model jet is labeled and marked with a specific colored thumbtack representing the aircraft’s current status, such as whether it is good to fly or in need of refueling. The result is that flight deck personnel have a clear bird’s-eye view of the whole operation and all its moving parts so they can identify and plan for potential hazards.

Ouija Board aircraft carrier

Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Handling) 3rd Class Cody Garza looks at the Ouija board during a general quarters drill aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson on Dec. 19. 2010. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Adrian T. White.

The flight crews of all 11 aircraft carriers in the US Navy fleet use some version of the Ouija board — and the system is not new. In fact, the Navy has utilized Ouija boards since as early as the 1920s, when aircraft carriers were still in their infancy. Over the years, the Navy has developed methods to improve the primitive system. Perhaps the most significant upgrade came in 2017, when the Office of Naval Research’s TechSolutions developed the Deployable Ship Integration Multitouch System, or DSIMS, which is essentially a digital version of the Ouija board, as it displays the aircraft carrier’s flight deck on a touch screen (rather than a piece of wood). 

Yet, despite carrier crews now having the DSIMS as an option, most still seem to favor the physical Ouija board.

“The Navy tends to stay away from digital software to keep track of such important information just in case of an emergency situation where the power goes out or the computer crashes,” said Damien Gusme, a former aviation boatswain’s mate who served on board the USS Nimitz from 2015 to 2020. “The board is a huge part of flight operations procedures.”

Read Next: Why Aircraft Carrier Crews Wear Different Shirt Colors — and What They Mean

Matt Fratus
Matt Fratus

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.

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