CEO of chip maker Micron dies in plane crash

The image Steve Appleton cultivated as a stunt pilot and off-road rally driver became the perfect metaphor for his wild, 18-year ride as the leader of Micron Technology Inc., where stomach-churning swings from billion-dollar profit to billion-dollar loss required the constitution of a business daredevil to survive.

Appleton, Micron's chief executive officer, died Friday morning when his experimental plane crashed at the Boise Airport, west of Micron's desert campus.

He was no stranger to plane crashes, surviving at least two earlier wrecks including one in 2004 that left him seriously injured. He was the only person aboard on Friday when the small Lancair crashed shortly after its second take-off attempt in Boise, according to safety investigators.

Appleton was known as a driven competitor in a volatile industry. Away from the office, he channeled that energy into high-octane hobbies, pursuing his passions as a stunt pilot, off-road racer and scuba diver.

"He lived life to the fullest, and while he enjoyed great success in business and in life, he never lost his intensity or his drive," Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter said in a statement.

In the wake of the 51-year-old's death, Micron's board of directors headed to Boise for a weekend meeting to discuss the company's next steps. Micron spokesman Dan Francisco said company president and chief operating officer D. Mark Durcan would take on Appleton's responsibilities until the board appoint his successor.

Corporate governance experts raised questions in the past about whether Appleton, as CEO, should be engaging in a hobby as risky as stunt piloting, but Micron's board accepted it as simply part of Appleton's work-hard and play-hard personality. The company's shares have traded between $3.97 and $11.95 over the past year, and shares were up 23 cents at $7.95 Friday before trading was halted for the announcement.

"Steve's passion and energy left an indelible mark on Micron, the Idaho community and the technology industry at large," Micron's board of directors said in a prepared statement.

Micron makes semiconductor chips for computers, mobile devices, cameras and other devices. It makes products under the Lexar and Crucial brands, and is one of Idaho's largest and most influential employers. In its latest fiscal year, which ended Sept. 1, Micron earned $167 million, or 17 cents per share, and had revenue of $8.8 billion.

Betsy Van Hees, an analyst from San Francisco's Wedbush Securities, always figured Appleton was the ideal persona to lead an upstart from the wilds of Idaho in the turbulent global memory industry. People must be thrill-seekers to be in the computer memory business, especially in recent years, Van Hees said.

"You look at what's happened in the industry over the years, its many ups and downs — more downs than ups lately — and Steve had stayed committed to that, and to staying in Boise," she said. "It's not a business for the faint of heart."

Crash investigators say Appleton hadn't filed a flight plan and by all indications planned to stay in the area for a recreational flight on a clear, sunny morning.

Air safety investigator Zoe Keliher with the National Transportation Safety Board said the crash happened during Appleton's second attempt to fly that morning. She said Appleton's first take-off ended abruptly — witnesses said the plane only got about 5 feet off the ground — when he re-landed and returned to a hangar for about five minutes.

Keliher said witnesses reported that the plane then returned to the runway to take off again, but Appleton almost immediately told the tower he needed to turn around and re-land. His plane was about 100 or 200 feet in the air before witnesses say it crashed and caught fire. Appleton's body was thrown from the wreckage.

Keliher said the remains of the pilot weren't immediately identifiable, but Appleton's wallet and other belongings were among the debris. She said the body was being fingerprinted by authorities.

The runway was dry and there were no indications that birds or weather caused the crash, Keliher said. Investigators planned to look for any evidence of equipment failure, pilot error or other problems.

Airport spokeswoman Patti Miller said the aircraft was a fixed-wing prop plane Lancair, which is built from kits.

Planes like the Lancair have caught the attention of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is in the midst of a study of their safety. Last year, the agency investigated 222 experimental and amateur-built plane accidents in which 67 people were killed. More than half involved planes that were bought used rather than having been built by the current owner.

In 2004, Appleton sustained a punctured lung, head injuries, ruptured disk and broken bones after his stunt plane crashed in the desert east of Boise.

He didn't immediately reveal the severity of injuries he sustained in that crash, and at the time a Micron spokesman described Appleton as only sustaining some "bumps and bruises." But in 2006 a corporate governance expert began questioning disclosures about the crash.

Appleton's death came one week after the company's president and chief operating officer, D. Mark Durcan, announced plans to retire in August. Mark W. Adams, Micron's vice president of worldwide sales, was named to succeed Durcan.

News of Appleton's death sparked an outpouring of homage from Idaho leaders, with Otter lauding him as a champion and visionary businessman who "understood the value as well as the cost of excellence."

Idaho's congressional delegation also mourned Appleton's death, with Sen. Mike Crapo and Reps. Mike Simpson and Raul Labrador saying that Appleton was to Idaho what the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was to America.

Appleton was the face of Micron for most Idahoans. The company was instrumental in Idaho's tech boom and is known for charitable giving, recently donating $13 million for a new building at Boise State University.

Appleton had his business administration degree from Boise State fresh in hand in 1983 when he took a graveyard job at the new high-tech startup, Micron. His starting wage on the chip fabrication line was just $4.46 an hour, but it wasn't long before Appleton was promoted, and promoted again — 11 times in all.

By 1991 he was the youngest-ever chief of a Fortune 500 company, serving as president and chief operating officer of Micron. In 1994, he was appointed to the position of chairman, chief executive officer and president, though he dropped the president title in 2007. He is survived by his wife, Dalynn, and four children.

Appleton owned several different types of aircraft, piloted in air shows and frequently flew the planes in the skies over Idaho. He had a penchant for other adventures too: In 2006, he won the 20-car Baja Challenge Class of the SCORE Tecate Baja 1000, completing the 1,047-mile run from Enseneda to La Paz in 25 hours and 25 minutes, 30 minutes ahead of his nearest competitor.

At the time, Appleton said he wasn't worried about putting himself and his executive team behind the wheels for the pounding, often brutal race over rough and remote terrain.

"I don't know what could be worse than being in the memory business for risk-taking," he said. "If we were in some stable, monopolistic business, I'd probably get objections from my executive staff about doing this, but they're all dying to go."

Micron shares were up 23 cents at $7.95 Friday before trading was halted in the early afternoon for the announcement. The company's shares have traded between $3.97 and $11.95 over the past year.


Associated Press correspondent Todd Dvorak and reporters Nick Jesdanun and Joan Lowy contributed to this report.