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Armor Components in Vietnam

A Story "Worthy" of Telling

Gary Worthy always wanted to be a helicopter pilot. Growing up, he loved watching TV shows such as Whirlybirds and dreaming of flying. After flight school, Gary was sent to Vietnam in 1968.

As a 1st Lieutenant in the 11th armored Calvary regiment his job was similar to being a “bird dog”, flying low over the jungle looking for enemy ambushes to protect the soldiers below him moving through the jungle. Sometimes he would hover over the jungle using the rotor wash from the helicopter blades to clear foliage to look for footprints, trails, or signs of the enemy

As a pilot, Gary was issued an armored chest protection plate, which are colloquially called ‘chicken plates’. These vests, which included a CoorsTek ceramic component made from alumina, were issued to all pilots. During one of his scouting missions, Gary and another passenger, his observer, spotted something that looked unusual on the ground.

“I saw what looked like a bamboo table, sitting in the jungle,” he said.

Gary Worthy in 1968.

A Vietnam War era newspaper article showcases the manufacture of armor components at Coors Porcelain (today's CoorsTek).

When he brought his helicopter closer to investigate further, several enemy soldiers started shooting at the helicopter with AK-47 automatic rifles. One of the bullets hit Gary directly over the heart. Fortunately, he was wearing the armored plate, so the bullet did not kill him instantly. Instead, the bullet ricocheted and went through his jaw and into his skull.

The observer in the co-pilot seat was not hit, but there were multiple rounds in his seat, which was also protected by armor. Gary was later told that the helicopter had over 75 bullet holes.

Despite the bullet lodged in his skull, Gary was able to fly the helicopter back to a safe area, not knowing how injured he actually was. When he landed, his wingman, Mr. Ballou immediately picked him up and flew him to a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) unit. Upon landing, the MASH doctors didn’t immediately get to work on him, until Mr. Ballou pointed his weapon at one of the doctors and told him he had better attend to Gary. Gary was then moved to a larger hospital and spent three months recovering in Saigon, Japan, and Fitzsimmons Army hospital in Denver.

When Gary tells his story, he says that the ‘chicken plate’ saved his life. If he hadn’t been wearing it, the bullet probably would have killed him immediately. To this day Gary still has the bullet in his head. The area where the incident occurred was later found to be a large Vietcong base camp.

Today Gary lives in Atwood, Kansas where in 1975 he founded Sunflower Aero Inc., an aerial crop dusting business. Gary still runs the business today.

CoorsTek has been manufacturing life-saving ceramic armor components since the 1960s.

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