Military Aviation

With 7 confirmed Houthi drones shot down, this USMC AV-8B Harrier pilot could be the First American ace since the Vietnam War: Meet USMC Captain Earl Ehrhart V

USMC Captain Earl Ehrhart V cuold be the first American ace since the Vietnam War

In the skies above the volatile Red Sea, US Marine Corps (USMC) Captain Earl Ehrhart V has become a silent guardian against Houthi drone threats.

As noted by Alert 5, with seven confirmed Houthi drones intercepted since December 2023, Captain Ehrhart has amassed an impressive record as an AV-8B Harrier pilot with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 162 (Reinforced), attached to the elite 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) (MEU(SOC)) amphibious assault ship USS Bataan (LHD 5).

Captain Ehrhart and his fellow Harrier pilots play a crucial role in safeguarding maritime traffic and deterring Houthi aggression operating within the US Fifth Fleet’s area of responsibility.

These nimble aircraft, boasting vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) capabilities, offer unparalleled flexibility and rapid response in the region’s complex airspace.

While details of specific missions remain classified, Captain Ehrhart’s achievements speak for themselves.

Just days before the outbreak of war in Gaza, Capt Ehrhart and his crewmates thought they were going home.

US Marine Corps Capt. Earl Ehrhart V, an AV-8B Harrier pilot attached to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 162 (Reinforced), 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) (MEU(SOC)), receives signals during flight operations aboard amphibious assault ship USS Bataan (LHD 5), Dec. 26, 2023. 

Hamas attacking Israel

The troops on board the USS Bataan were about to finish their tour of duty after months patrolling the waters close to the Persian Gulf.

But on Oct. 7, 2023, everything changed.

The USS Bataan received new orders, to plot a course towards the eastern Mediterranean and prepare to monitor the coast of Gaza within an hour of Hamas attacking Israel and killing around 1,200 people.

To engage the Houthis another change in the mission came 12 days later. In response to the escalating violence in Gaza, since mid-December the Yemeni Houthis have attacked more than two dozen shipping vessels. They claim all were either Israeli-owned or operated. However, many appear to have no connection with Israel at all.

The US and UK began carrying out air strikes in retaliation, including from the USS Bataan, in January.

A Harrier jet modified it for air defence

“The Houthis were launching a lot of suicide attack drones,” Ehrhart told to BBC. “They are a robust and capable force,” he added, warning they are not to be underestimated.

To be effective against this rebel group, the marines needed to adapt.

“We took a Harrier jet and modified it for air defence,” Ehrhart tells me. “We loaded it up with missiles and that way were able to respond to their drone attacks.”

When Yemen’s Houthis began firing missiles and flying drones into commercial ships in the Red Sea, the crew of the USS Bataan sent jets out to try and shoot them down.

“I never imagined I was going to be doing this when we launched,” says lead pilot Capt Earl Ehrhart.

“They are shooting at us all the time, so we need to be even more focused. Our systems need to be primed so we can stay safe.”

US Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Moises Moreno, an aircraft ordnance technician with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 162 (Reinforced), 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) (MEU(SOC)), loads an AIM-9M Sidewinder onto an AV-8B Harrier during flight operations aboard amphibious assault ship USS Bataan (LHD 5), Dec. 26, 2023.

The First American ace since the Vietnam War?

His tally of neutralized drones underscores the effectiveness of Marine aviation in countering emerging threats and maintaining regional stability.

With seven drones falling victim to his Harrier’s precision, Captain Ehrhart’s name is etched among the ranks of those who guard the skies. While the traditional definition of an “ace” might be evolving in the drone age, his achievements speak volumes about his exceptional talent and courage.

According to the American Fighter Aces Association (AFAA), an American Fighter Ace is a US citizen who has served honorably as a fighter pilot in a US military service or the service of a nation not at war with the United States (or others who flew as a member of a US military service) who has destroyed five or more enemy aircraft in aerial combat.

The last American Aces emerged from the Vietnam War.

Of the five American Aces from the Vietnam war, two are pilots and three are back seaters. The pilots are Randy “Duke” Cunningham, a retired US Navy commander and former F-4 Phantom pilot, and Steve Ritchie, a retired USAF brigadier general. The back seaters are: Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) Willy “Irish” Driscoll Charles DeBellevue, a retired USAF colonel who is credited with six kills; Jeffrey Feinstein, a retired USAF lieutenant colonel.

An AV-8B Harrier attached to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 162 (Reinforced), 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) (MEU(SOC)), takes off from amphibious assault ship USS Bataan (LHD 5) during flight operations, Dec. 26.

The 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit

The 26th MEU is based in North Carolina and includes the command element; the aviation combat element, Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron, 162 (Reinforced); the ground combat element, Battalion Landing Team 1/6; and the logistics combat element, Combat Logistics Battalion 22.

In addition to the MEU, other command includes Fleet Surgical Team 8, Tactical Air Control Squadron 12, Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 26, Assault Craft Unit 2, Assault Craft Unit 4 and Beach Master Unit 2.

As reported by USNI News, prior to the deployment aboard USS Bataan, the 26th MEU was certified as a special operation capable as part of its nine-month work-up cycle.

An AV-8B Harrier attached to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 162 (Reinforced), 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) (MEU(SOC)), takes off from amphibious assault ship USS Bataan (LHD 5) during flight operations, Dec. 26, 2023. Marines and Sailors of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), embarked on the ships of the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group, are on a scheduled deployment as the Tri-Geographic Combatant Command crisis response force with elements deployed to the US 5th Fleet and US 6th Fleet areas of operation to increase maritime security and stability, and to defend US, Allied, and Partner interests.

Photo credit: Sgt. Matthew Romonoyske-Bean / U.S. Marine Corps

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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