Columbus business exec was pilot of plane that vanished with 6 aboard

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UPDATE:

The U.S. Coast Guard will suspend its search efforts Friday at 7:30 p.m.

"The decision to suspend a search is never easy," said Capt. Michael Mullen, chief of response for the Coast Guard 9th District. "I extend my deepest condolences to the family and friends of those who lost loved ones during this tragedy."

Representatives from the City of Cleveland and the Coast Guard will host a joint press conference to discuss recovery efforts, Saturday at 10:00 a.m.

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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.

Joseph R. McHenry, Executive Vice President of Superior Beverage Group, issued a statement saying Fleming was on the plane with his wife Sue, sons Jack and Andrew and two close friends.

We have learned that our valued colleague and leader John T. Fleming, President and Chief Executive Officer of Superior Beverage Group, his wife Sue, sons Jack and Andrew, and two close friends were involved in an aircraft accident near Cleveland Thursday night. While search and rescue operations are under way, we are focusing our efforts on supporting the families involved. We are working closely with the proper authorities conducting the investigation. We appreciate the efforts of the first responders on the scene.

As we all await the results of the search and rescue efforts, our hearts are with John, his wife, their sons,

and close friends on board, as well as with their loved ones and everyone in the Superior Beverage family.

This is a difficult day for us, and we appreciate the concern and thoughtfulness extended by so many.

Fleming's father 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. 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.

The City of Dublin and City Council released a statement regarding the missing plane over Lake Erie:

“We are deeply saddened by this news,” said Mayor Greg Peterson. “Dublin City Council, City of Dublin staff and the Dublin Irish Festival family are keeping all of those on board the flight in our thoughts and prayers.”

John Fleming is president and CEO of Superior Beverage Group, and served as the 2008 Dublin Irish Festival Honorary Chair. He and his family are some of the Festival's biggest fans and supporters.

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