BOISE, Idaho/SAN FRANCISCO, Feb 3 - Micron Technology Inc Chief Executive and Chairman Steve Appleton died in a small plane crash on Friday, a major loss for a U.S. memory chipmaker already struggling with sluggish computer sales and declining prices.
The 51-year-old Appleton, a three-decade industry veteran who performed stunts at airshows, died after the small plane he was piloting crashed at an airport in Boise, Idaho, where the chipmaker is headquartered.
His death stunned the tight-knit semiconductor industry. Appleton was a prominent figure in Boise, a city of 200,000 in the western United States, and a member of the Idaho Business Council.
President and Chief Operating Officer Mark Durcan, who was due to retire in August, will take up the CEO's responsibilities until the company's board can appoint a permanent successor. Directors will meet over the weekend, Micron said in a statement.
Shares in Micron, halted prior to the announcement, resumed trade after the regular market close and promptly slid 6 percent.
"Steve was a high-energy, never-give-up type of inspirational leader of the company. The entire industry will miss Steve's energy," said Stifel Nicolaus analyst Kevin Cassidy. "That said, Micron has a deep bench of managers that shared Steve's vision."
The accident happened while Appleton flew an experimental Lancair single-engine airplane, Boise Airport spokeswoman Patty Miller told Reuters. Lancair sells kits to build high-end planes.
After taking off and reaching an altitude of about 200 feet, Appleton radioed that he had a problem and needed to turn around, Boise police spokeswoman Lynn Hightower told reporters.
His crash soon after caused a large fire and left a twisted, black mass of wreckage.
No stranger to mishaps, Appleton was injured in 2004 while piloting a stunt plane.
Appleton - a California native who joined Micron to work the night shift right after graduating from Boise State University in 1983 - was appointed CEO in 1994. He resigned in 1996, only to return nine days later after the board asked him to reconsider.
His subsequent, meteoric ascent led to his becoming the youngest CEO on the Fortune 500 at the age of 34.
Appleton, a noted sports enthusiast who also scuba-dived, surfed and raced offroad cars and motorcycles, received the prestigious Robert Noyce award - the industry's highest honor - from the Semiconductor Industry Association in 2011.
The award, named after Intel Corp cofounder Robert Noyce, is conferred on those who have made major contributions to the chip industry.
A BIG LOSS
"Steve was a visionary and a true leader in our industry. He will be deeply missed by the entire semiconductor community and our prayers and thoughts are with his family," Brian Toohey, President of the Semiconductor Industry Association, said in a statement.
Micron makes memory chips used in personal computers, smartphones and tablets and competes against Asian rivals Hynix Semiconductor Inc, Samsung Electronics Co Ltd and Toshiba Corp.
Memory chip makers are struggling as falling prices and huge investments to stay competitive saddle them with massive losses. Micron is the last remaining U.S. producer of memory chips.
Boise Mayor Dave Bieter said Appleton was sensitive to how job cuts by Micron in recent years affected the community.
"He called me and told me about the layoffs coming up and explained how the business-end of chip technology would develop and that Micron would come out strong on the other end. And it happened exactly the way he said it would," Bieter told reporters.
The company announced just last week that Durcan would retire in August, but Appleton's death raised questions about whether he might stay on.
Analysts also questioned how the incident will affect reported discussions over a potential equity tie-up or partnership with Japan's Elpida, which is struggling to find financing as debt and losses mount.
Trading in Micron shares was halted on Friday morning pending the company's announcement. The shares were down at $7.48 in extended trading, from a last quote of $7.95 on the Nasdaq, before the halt.
(Additional reporting by Himank Sharma in Bangalore, Writing by Edwin Chan; Editing by Andre Grenon, Gary Hill and Tim Dobbyn)