CEO of chip maker Micron dies in plane crash
Saturday, February 4, 2012
BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The head of memory chip maker Micron, long known for taking risks in stunt piloting, died Friday when a small experimental plane he was piloting steeply banked, stalled and crashed near an Idaho runway.
Steve Appleton, who survived a similar crash eight years ago and had a reputation as a hard-driving daredevil, was the only person aboard the plane when witnesses said it crashed shortly after its second take-off attempt in Boise, according to safety investigators.
Appleton’s death was confirmed by Micron Technology Inc., the board accepted his high-octane hobbies as simply part of a work-hard and play-hard personality. Corporate governance experts raised questions in the past about whether Appleton, as CEO, should be engaging in a hobby as risky as stunt piloting.
Micron 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 is one of many companies that make semiconductor chips for various devices, including computers, mobile devices, cameras, cars and industrial systems. It makes products under the Lexar and Crucial brands, and is one of Idaho’s largest and most influential employers.
The company’s shares have traded between $3.97 and $11.95 over the past year. 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.
The 51-year-old Appleton hadn’t filed a flight plan and by all indications planned to stay in the area for a recreational flight, investigators said.
Zoe Keliher, air investigator 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 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 weather was clear. Keliher said investigators planned to look for any evidence of equipment failure or other problems.
Airport spokeswoman Patti Miller said the aircraft was a fixed-wing prop plane Lancair, which is built from kits.
Federal Aviation Administration’s records show the tail number of the wrecked plane was registered to Raleighwood Aviation LLC out of North Carolina.
It was manufactured in 2007 and filed in the “amateur built” category.
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.
Doug Meyer, the company’s marketing and sales manager, declined to comment about the crash, saying the company knew very little.
“Lancair aircraft are quite safe,” he said.
In July 2004, Appleton sustained a punctured lung, head injuries, ruptured disk and broken bones after his stunt plane crashed in the desert east of Boise.
After that crash, Appleton didn’t immediately reveal the severity of injuries his injuries, 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.
Micron spokesman Dan Francisco said Durcan is assuming the responsibilities of CEO until the company’s board appoints Appleton’s successor.
The board planned to meet over the weekend to discuss its next steps.
News of Appleton’s death sparked an outpouring of homage from Idaho leaders, with Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter lauding him as a champion and visionary businessman who “understood the value as well as the cost of excellence.”
Appleton was the face of Micron for most Idahoans. The company was instrumental in the Idaho’s tech boom and is known for charitable giving, recently donating $13 million for a new building at Boise State University.
Appleton started on the factory floor of Micron in 1983 and worked his way up. In 1991, he was appointed president and chief operating officer of Micron and in 1994, he was appointed to the position of chairman, chief executive officer and president. He assumed his position as CEO and chairman in 2007.
Appleton owned several different types of aircraft, piloted in air shows and frequently flew the planes 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 reporters Nick Jesdanun and Joan Lowy contributed to this report.
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