Business executive and family among 6 on missing Ohio plane

Burke Lakefront Airport (NBC Photo)

CLEVELAND (AP) — The chief executive of a beverage distribution company was piloting a plane carrying his wife, two sons and two other people when it quickly lost altitude after takeoff from Cleveland’s lakeshore airport and vanished from radar, according to his family and a flight-tracking service Friday.

The parents of Superior Beverage Company executive John T. Fleming confirmed he was piloting the Columbus-bound plane when it disappeared late Thursday about 2 miles over Lake Erie.

Fleming’s father said the other five people on the plane were Fleming’s wife, two teenage sons, a neighbor and the neighbor’s daughter. John W. Fleming also described his son as “an experienced pilot.”

Capt. Michael Mullen of the U.S. Coast Guard answers questions during a news conference at Burke Lakefront Airport, Friday, Dec. 30, 2016, in Cleveland. The U.S. Coast Guard said there's been no sign of debris or those aboard a plane that took off from the airport on the shores of Lake Erie and went missing overnight. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Capt. Michael Mullen of the U.S. Coast Guard answers questions during a news conference at Burke Lakefront Airport, Friday, Dec. 30, 2016, in Cleveland. The U.S. Coast Guard said there’s been no sign of debris or those aboard a plane that took off from the airport on the shores of Lake Erie and went missing overnight. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Crews combing Lake Erie for the plane on Friday remain hopeful that the occupants could be found alive, and they are in search-and-rescue mode, not recovery mode, as they ply waters about 50 feet deep, said Capt. Michael Mullen, the chief of response for the Ninth Coast Guard District.

Authorities have detected “faint hints” but no strong pulse from an emergency locating transmitter, a beacon that could help find the plane, Mullen said. Searchers have found no sign of debris.

“We’re very hopeful. We will be very hopeful up until the point that we have to turn the search off and we switch over to assisting with recovery,” Mullen said at news conference Friday.

But when asked about the possibility of the single-engine jet landing safely on Lake Erie, Mullen said, “Aircraft are not designed to float, especially in 12-foot seas.”

The search overnight was made difficult by snow squalls, high seas and darkness, Mullen said. Weather prevented smaller Coast Guard boats in the Cleveland area from launching. A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter and a Royal Canadian Air Force plane were used along with a Coast Guard ship from Detroit began the search overnight that has continued in the daylight hours Friday.

It would have been the pilot’s responsibility to determine whether it was safe to fly, Mullen said.

The Federal Aviation Administration said the Cessna Citation 525 plane left Burke Lakefront Airport at 10:50 p.m., and the Coast Guard said it was notified about the missing plane by air traffic control at Burke about 30 minutes later. Investigators from the FAA and National Transportation Safety Board were expected to arrive in Cleveland on Friday.

The aircraft was headed to Ohio State University Airport northwest of downtown Columbus. The plane is kept at a hangar at the airfield, but the six people aboard the aircraft aren’t affiliated with OSU, Coast Guard representatives said.

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Associated Press writer Kantele Franko contributed to this report from Columbus, Ohio.