When the Navy first flew its F-14 Tomcat fighter in 1970, it was the world’s most advanced fighter and ushered in a whole new generation of tactical aircraft capabilities. This would be an impressive accomplishment for any aircraft, made even more so by the fact that the Tomcat was designed to take off and land on aircraft carriers. F-14 capabilities included a top speed of more than 1,500 mph, but also the ability to maneuver better than any existing or expected threat fighter, and a relatively slow speed for safer carrier landings. To achieve these conflicting goals designers chose a variable geometry wing, also known as a “swing wing.”
Once again, operating a swing-wing fighter would be an impressive accomplishment, but the Tomcat’s wings were computer-controlled, an aviation FIRST – and also a milestone in the history of electronics, since the wings were controlled by the Central Air Data Computer (CADC), which relied on a microprocessor. But there was no such thing as a microprocessor, so designers Ray Holt and Steve Geller INVENTED it. Their microprocessor was much more reliable than the electromechanical systems used by other aircraft, as well as being a fraction of their size. Thus equipped, the F-14 went on to long successful service in the US Navy, and its microprocessor-controlled CADC remained a key component. In a note that is sure to create some anxiety, the F-14 continues to serve (as of 2018) with the air force of one of our bitterest enemies, Iran.
Invented the microprocessor? So why don’t you recognize the name Ray Holt? As co-designer of the world’s first microprocessor he should be as famous as Edison, or at least Jobs and Wozniak.
Unfortunately, the US Navy realized that this new capability was critical technology and clamped a lid of secrecy on it, which no one was able to remove until 1998. By that time the field was crowded with names clamoring to be the first, leaving Holt and Geller to elbow their way to the goal for the recognition they deserved. (Unfortunately, Steve Geller has passed away.)
Ray Holt’s book, The Accidental Engineer, tells this part of the story but doesn’t dwell on it. No, in typical Ray Holt style, the story is relentlessly positive and optimistic, as well as very candid.
I thoroughly enjoyed the 1950s and 1960s that young Ray Holt knew, which I visited by reading his book. He describes a wholesome life. It definitely wasn’t easy, as he dealt with setbacks, as well as uncertainty about where his life would lead. But his dogged persistence to succeed – at whatever task was in his sights – is evident on every page. As he himself admits, Ray was not the greatest student. Success wasn’t handed to him, nor was he sure exactly what path his life would take. In fact, reading the book I wondered, “How did this guy come to develop such an important electronic device?”
That is one of the enjoyable aspects of Ray’s life story. He kept working to succeed, all the while gathering the tools, he would need to accomplish this remarkable feat. Later in life he applies his optimism and persistence to another worthwhile cause: teaching robotics and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to students in rural Mississippi. It’s no surprise that this is also going well. Taking this journey with Ray, as told in his unassuming manner, was a memorable experience for me.
Thanks, Ray, for designing the F-14’s CADC microprocessor … and also for taking the time to write your wonderful book.
Dave “Bio” Baranek
Former F-14 RIO and Topgun instructor
Author: Topgun Days
Dave Baranek was born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida, and in his early teens he set his sights on flying Navy jet fighters. He attended Georgia Tech and participated in the ROTC to qualify for officer training, then entered the Navy in 1979.
Without 20/20 eyesight he could not become a pilot, so instead he became a radar intercept officer (RIO), operating the weapons system in the Navy’s hot new F-14 Tomcat fighter. Shortly after he joined his first squadron, he received the call sign “Bio,” which many of his former squadron mates still call him.
His first F-14 squadron was VF-24, and based on his outstanding performance he was selected to become an aerial combat instructor at the elite Navy Fighter Weapons School, better known as Topgun. While serving as an instructor in 1985, he had the unusual experience of flying aerial sequences used in the film “Top Gun,” starring Tom Cruise and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer.
His second F-14 squadron was VF-2, after which he served in two shore tours: supporting the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the US 7th Fleet. He commanded F-14 squadron VF-211, responsible for nearly 300 people and 14 aircraft worth about $700 million.
He retired from the Navy in 1999 after a 20-year career. In retirement he has written several books about the F-14 and Topgun. His website is www.TopgunBio.com.