World & Nation

Search suspended for plane piloted by beverage exec that vanished over Lake Erie with 6 aboard

Capt. Michael Mullen of the U.S. Coast Guard answers questions during a news conference at Burke Lakefront Airport on Dec. 30, 2016, in Cleveland.
(Tony Dejak / 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.

Superior Beverage Group executive John T. Fleming was piloting the Columbus-bound plane when it disappeared late Thursday about 2 miles over Lake Erie, his parents and company confirmed.

The five other people on the plane were Fleming’s wife, Sue, teenage sons Jack and Andrew, a neighbor and the neighbor’s daughter, said John W. Fleming, the pilot’s father, and Joseph McHenry, an executive vice president at Superior Beverage.

The U.S. Coast Guard said Friday it was suspending search-and-rescue efforts and is no longer expecting to find anyone alive.


Coast Guard Capt. Michael Mullen says deciding to end a search is never easy. He says the Coast Guard extends its condolences to “the family and friends of those who lost loved ones during this tragedy.”

The Coast Guard had been using planes, helicopters and a 140-foot-long cutter in searching a 128-square-mile area in the lake after the plane lost radar contact late Thursday.

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 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.

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.

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 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.

Associated Press

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