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 today.
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.”
Crews combing Lake Erie for the plane today 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 today 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 today.
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. 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 today.
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 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 today.
The aircraft was headed to Ohio State University Airport northwest of downtown Columbus.
Associated Press writers Kantele Franko in Columbus, Ohio, and David Koenig in Dallas contributed to this report.