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Pilot Error to Blame in 2012 Plane Crash that Killed Micron CEO Steve Appleton

Details released in Appleton crash

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The February 2012 air crash that claimed the life of Micron CEO Steve Appleton was the result of pilot error, according to a probable cause report released by the National Transportation Safety Board on Sept. 8.

Appleton, 51, took off from the Boise Airport Feb. 2, 2012, flying a Lancair IV-TP--a type of experimental, high-performance plane built from a kit. According to the NTSB report, he reached an altitude of 60 feet on an initial take off before telling air traffic control that he had experienced a problem and would touch back down. When asked if he needed assistance, Appleton responded he would taxi back and "see if I can figure it out," the report stated.

Safely taxied to a ramp, Appleton's apparently tried to troubleshoot the problem for about a minute and a half before signaling that he would take the plane back out. Airborne again, Appleton told air traffic control that he would again need to land, but turning left to approach the runway the plane made a sudden ascent to about 320 feet when it entered a spin, completed one revolution and hit the ground with more than 5,160 feet of runway remaining. The plane caught fire on impact.

NTSB's investigation found no evidence of inflight fire or flight control system malfunction prior to impact. Rather, fuel flow and fuel pressure seem to have fluctuated for unknown reasons, affecting the amount of torque delivered to the engine shaft, "indicative of a problem with the airplane," according to the report.

Appleton had gone up in the same plane six days before the crash and performed another rejected takeoff, but made a successful flight.

The report added that a simulation showed the airplane's fatal stall likely occurred when the engine failed during the left turn. Airspeed would have rapidly decayed, requiring the pilot to angle the nose down to keep proper flying speed. During the turn, the wings were angled in such a way that the plane's nose remained up, causing it to stall and pulling down the wing. "It would not be possible to recover from the stall at altitudes below 1,500 ft. [above ground level]," the report stated.

The exact role that engine failure played in the crash could not be identified due to post-accident damage and fire.

Unknown to investigators was why Appleton decided to turn the plane and return to the runway, rather than take advantage of a flat, hard-dirt surface that would have served for a straight-ahead landing.

According to NTSB, the model of plane Appleton was flying may also have had something to do with the crash. Twenty-six percent of Lancair planes have been involved in accidents, according to the report, and 19 percent have been fatal. The "unusually high accident and fatality rate compared to other amateur-built aircraft," resulted in the Federal Aviation Administration convening safety groups in 2008 and 2012 that found the kit was involved in fatal accidents at "a rate that is disproportionate to their fleet size."

FAA issued a notice to Lancair pilots that they should "obtain specialized training regarding slow flight handling characteristics, stall recognition and stall recovery techniques"--precisely the features of the plane that resulted in Appleton's fatal crash, but investigators stated "no evidence was found indicating the pilot had received flight instruction in the accident airplane model, even though he was aware that insurance companies required him to do so in order to receive coverage."

NTSB, while noting that Appleton was properly certified with FAA regulations and had logged nearly 14 hours of flight time in the Lancair, added that his lack of training in the make and model of the plane contributed to the crash.

Appleton was not a stranger to air accidents. In July 2004, the avid pilot was involved in another crash, that time in an Extra 300L stunt plane that stalled out and wrecked in the desert south of the Idaho State Correctional Institution.

He had been flying with a member of a Micron film crew, and both were treated and released from Saint Alphonsus Medical Center with Appleton suffering head and neck injuries.

The Micron CEO's death in 2012 prompted a wave of memorials, including from Boise State University President Bob Kustra, who called the alum "one of Boise State's own," as well as Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, who remembered him as "a philanthropist and great friend to Boise."

Less than a year after his death, a life-sized sculpture in his likeness was commissioned to stand in the Appleton Courtyard of the Micron Business and Economics Building at Boise State, which opened shortly after the plane crash.

The bronze statue, cast by South Dakota artist, now Boise resident, Benjamin Victor, cost $90,000, paid for by the Micron Foundation, and was installed earlier this month.

--Zach Hagdone