Business exec was pilot of plane that vanished

The chief executive of a beverage distribution company was piloting a plane

CLEVELAND — 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 two miles over Lake Erie.

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

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

Tracking service FlightAware logged only three location pings for the plane after takeoff from Burke Lakefront Airport, and the last one indicated rapid altitude loss. Authorities have said there were no distress signals from the pilot.

The aircraft took off westward from Burke, then turned north across the lake, according to the tracking service flightradar24.com. The departure procedure at Burke could take an aircraft north over the lake before turning south toward a destination, Mullen said.

The plane, which had made the roughly half-hour trip from Columbus earlier in the day, is registered to a limited liability company under the same Columbus address as Superior Beverage. Messages seeking comment were left Friday for a Superior Beverage representative.

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 two-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.

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