CEO Appleton reflected Micron's high-risk business

The death of Micron Technology's CEO during a solo flight in a hard-to-handle aircraft symbolizes the risky memory chip market that is the company's bread and butter.

The late Steve Appleton piloting a plane.
The late Steve Appleton piloting a plane. Micron Technology

Steve Appleton mirrored the survivalist streak in the company he led.

Micron Technology CEO Appleton died Friday at 51 years old when a high-performance Lancair plane he was piloting crashed at Boise Airport in Idaho.

Lancairs aren't easy to fly. In fact, they're difficult enough that the Federal Aviation Administration gave notice to Lancair operators in 2009 that the planes had a "disproportionate" number of fatal accidents.

Though Lancairs accounted for only 3 percent of the nation's amateur-built airplanes, they accounted for 16 percent of the fatal accidents in the 11 months prior to the notice, according to Bloomberg.

"The plane's aerodynamic stalls, which result from loss of lift, are more violent than in other small planes," Bloomberg said, quoting Steve Wallace, former chief of safety at the FAA. And most of those crashes occurred near the runway.

The Idaho Statesman said Appleton's flight lasted only 80 seconds.

Appleton doing an acrobatic flight maneuver.
Appleton doing an acrobatic flight maneuver. Micron Technology

Micron wasn't easy to pilot either. And the company always seemed to be a couple of quarters away from collapse. In the last few years, Micron has had a string of quarterly losses and reported an annual profit in only 4 of the past 10 calendar years. And the company laid off thousands of workers in 2009 when it closed manufacturing operations in Boise, Idaho, where its headquarters are located.

It's all part and parcel of the memory chip industry's notorious boom-and-bust cycles that have brought much bigger companies than Micron to their knees, including Texas Instruments, Hitachi, NEC, Hynix, and lately Japan-based Elpida.

But, amazingly, Micron has survived through decades of turbulence and is the only remaining U.S.-based maker of DRAM after Asia-based memory manufacturing giants crushed U.S. pioneers Intel and TI.

And in keeping with Micron's survivalist streak, it hooked up with Intel and dove headlong into the flash memory business in 2005. At that time, Micron and Intel reportedly received a $500 million prepayment from Apple so Apple could secure a supply of flash memory.

That company, Intel-Micron Flash Technologies, now has leading-edge flash chip manufacturing plants in Lehi, Utah; Manassas, Virginia; and Singapore.

Micron's NAND flash memory market share was 11.3 percent in the fourth quarter, putting it in fourth place among global flash manufacturers, according to market research firm TrendForce.

Not bad, when you're up against the likes of Samsung and Toshiba.

"To play and win in the memory business you have to be a daredevil at heart. Fearless, courageous, and confident. Steve demonstrates these characteristics in spades," Semiconductor Industry Association Chairman Ray Stata said when presenting Appleton with the prestigious Robert N. Noyce award in November of last year.

And the memory chip business will always be high risk--something Appleton understood very well.

Update:> Micron appointed Mark Durcan as CEO Saturday. He was formerly president and COO.

Updated at 7:40 p.m. PST: adding announcement of Mark Durcan as CEO.

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