ABOARD THE USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN IN THE PERSIAN GULF — For all the billions of dollars' worth of supersonic aircraft and high-tech gadgetry on this nuclear-powered carrier, tracking the frantic choreography of flight operations comes down to the players at the ship's "Ouija board."
With up to 200 takeoffs and landings each day, plus the taxiing, parking, fueling and repair of the air wing's 70-plus aircraft, flight deck movements are too fast and furious to plug into a computer for a digital display of the deck scene.
Instead, the "handler" in charge of making order out of the seeming flight deck chaos maintains a scale model of the ever-changing floating tarmac on a waist-high table topped with plastic replicas of planes that look like a small boy's toys from a simpler era.
"They're templates!" corrects the handler, Cmdr. Paul Erickson, explaining the elaborate codes used among the Ouija workers to keep the tabletop rendition of the deck detailed and current.
Much as with the popular fortunetelling game, the handler and his assistants use their fingertips to move flat plastic pieces around the table as the planes they represent change position.
There's a template for each of the carrier's aircraft, with shape and color denoting the Super Hornets and Tomcats and Prowlers and Hawkeyes. Those flipped over and showing their striped undersides indicate aircraft that are down for maintenance or headed for hangar bay storage.
Green pins stuck into templates signify aircraft to be launched in the first wave of sorties. Yellow pins mark the second cycle's aircraft. Those planes pinned with red are on alert, ready to launch in as little as seven minutes should any threat to the ship be detected by the circling E-2C Hawkeyes that are among the first craft to leave and the last to return to the carrier.
Other symbolic flourishes on a template warn of hazards or collision risks. A fuse on the S-3 Viking replica means its adjustable tail is up. Circular white disks that look like tiddlywinks show the rotor span of helicopters, and translucent red disks indicate aircraft temporarily parked over the edge of any of the four elevators that shuttle planes and ordnance from the hangar bay below.
The 4-acre flight deck is sectioned off for easy reference. There's the Gut, the Crotch, the Corral, the Patio, the Shelf, the High Point and the Finger. Along the bow edges are 1-Row and 4-Row, long stretches for parking or servicing aircraft.
Aiding the handler are Big Dog and Pup, the flight deck coordinators for the air wing -- the 2,000-plus aviators and technicians who keep the carrier's aircraft flying. Above their erasable wall-hung white board is a restaurant-style "now serving" sign to designate which slate of launches or recoveries is underway.
"It's a quick indicator of who's going next. It's a lot easier than trying to hunt something on a piece of paper," Erickson says of the flight-deck representations that serve as the carrier's arrival and departure records.
When launches and recoveries reach a furious crescendo, however, the keepers of the Ouija board can lose track of what's been sent where.
"If we get confused, we just go out with the clipboard and a grease pencil," says Airman Scotty Morris of Lawton, Okla., who serves as the handler's executor, deftly shuffling templates and swapping out hardware to maintain a coded picture of the flight-deck action.
Like croupiers in smudged jerseys, Erickson and his team deal out the changes to their model based on a play-by-play radioed from the bridge by the air boss, the carrier's equivalent of an airport manager, who directs a staff of 600.
As returning planes slam onto the flight deck and hook one of the four arresting cables that slow them from 160 mph to zero within 300 feet, the air boss, Cmdr. Brian Toon, interrupts the swift succession, warning of a "close interval" when another plane will land in seconds.