Naval Air: Why Aircraft Carriers Need Ouija Board


December 12, 2023: The flight operations personnel of American aircraft carriers have, since early in World War II, relied on devices called Ouija (wee gee) Boards to sort out where aircraft would be positioned during flight or pre-flight operations. The term came from the séance & card game versions of Ouija Boards. The aircraft carrier version was improvised after early Pacific War carrier actions showed a need to keep track of the locations, movements, and maintenance/readiness standards of carrier aircraft on the flight and hangar decks of carriers. It was used for more than seventy years and has only in the past ten years been phased out in favor of electronic versions.

The Ouija Board table had a 1:192 drawing of the flight deck on it, and 1:192 models of aircraft depicting where aircraft are while being fueled, armed, waiting for movement to the hangar deck below, or ready for takeoff. This is particularly critical since you could have dozens of aircraft on the flight deck, in various stages of readiness for takeoff, or having just landed. A second Ouija Board showed the situation on the hangar deck, where aircraft underwent maintenance, repairs or were simply stored when not needed right away.

To avoid confusion and chaos, the obvious solution (a small scale model of the flight deck, set up in a room, in the towering “island” on the side of the flight deck, with a view of the flight deck) came to be. It was never replaced mainly because the Ouija Board worked so well, was cheap, did not break down and was easily replaced in case of damage. On the downside, each carrier had a slightly different method of placing bolts, tacks and whatever was available (such as cigarette butts) on the model aircraft, to indicate their status. So as flight deck control personnel moved from carrier to carrier, they had to learn a new Ouija Board system.

By 2016 the manual, tactile Ouija Board was replaced by software that created an electronic Ouija Board imagery on a flat screen computer display that made it easier for flight control personnel to track aircraft during or before flight operations. This computerization effort was part of ADMACS (Aviation Data Management and Control System), a computer database system which tracks all aircraft activities, including use of spare parts, personnel, and fuel. ADMACS also handles scheduling and makes all this information available to the hundreds of technical personnel in the Carrier Air Wing who are involved with maintaining, repairing, and operating the aircraft. It was the need for personnel outside the flight operations center to view information on Ouija Boards that drove replacement of the line-of-sight only manual version.

ADMACS is a tactical, real-time data management system that connects the air department, ship divisions and embarked staff who manage aircraft launch and recovery operations aboard ships. communicates real-time aviation and command-related data across the system's local area network and the Consolidated Afloat Network and Enterprise Services (CANES) network. Important data, such as the position and location of aircraft on flight and hangar decks, is then electronically displayed in the flight deck control room and displays elsewhere in carriers. ADMACS also displays the status of Aircraft Launch and Recovery Equipment (ALRE), fuel, weapons and other aviation and ship- related information.

ADMACS was fully implemented on one carrier by 2015 and four by 2016. Currently, the ADMACS Ouija Board feature is implemented on only one carrier. ADMACS itself is an effort to combine, or just network, the many computerized aspects of aircraft operations aboard carriers. During World War II, there were no computers on board, and all control systems were manual. But computers began to show up in a big way during the 1980s, as PCs began appearing on carriers. Eventually, computers took over most data tracking and record keeping. ADMACS is the result of that trend and is now closing in on the few remaining manual systems, like the Ouija Board.

ADMACS Black I was installed on all ten Nimitz class CVNs by 2016 and since then these ships have been getting upgraded versions of ADMACS. The current version requires only one sailor to monitor ADMACS operation and performance on a CVN.

The current version of ADMACS provides crew on aircraft carriers with a much more efficient tool that is a less workload intensive alternative to the manual Ouija board tabletop models that replicated flight and hangar deck operations since World War II. The primary goal of ADMACS is to significantly improve air operations effectiveness and provide workload reduction through process automation, optimization and integration of key operational systems. That has been accomplished and the last manual Ouija Board system was retired by 2015. Eight years later, the number of officers and sailors who remember using the Ouija Board are fewer and fewer because of retirement and completed service contracts. There were never a lot of naval personnel needed to operate manual Ouija Board and fewer needed to operate ADMACS, which continues to be updated.

ADMACS Block II Phase I brought all aircraft carriers to a single ADMACS system in 2020. Upgrades to the system continue in the form of Engineering Change Proposals (ECPs) to ensure that the fleet's information systems are current and provide for safe, smooth, and cyber-secure operations.

Information Systems engineers at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division in Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, work to further develop and support this critical information system. This work is done at the ADMACS Laboratories, the Aviation Information System Development Laboratory (AISDL) and the ALRE Technology Integration Center (A-TIC) in New Jersey.




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