Coast Guard suspends search for missing plane with 6 onboard

A search plane flies over Lake Erie, Friday, Dec. 30, 2016, in Cleveland. A U.S. Coast Guard official said crews are in search-and-rescue mode, not recovery mode, as they look for a plane carrying six people that disappeared overnight shortly after takeoff from a Cleveland airport along Lake Erie's shore. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

CLEVELAND (AP) — The U.S. Coast Guard on Friday suspended its search for an airplane that was carrying a beverage distribution company executive and five other people when it vanished over Lake Erie shortly after takeoff from the city’s lakeshore airport.

The Coast Guard said it would step aside to allow Cleveland to begin recovery efforts of the plane and the victims.

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

John T. Fleming, the chief executive of a Columbus-based beverage distribution company, was piloting the plane, which was carrying his wife, Sue Fleming, their teenage sons, Jack and Andrew, a neighbor and the neighbor’s daughter. The plane suddenly lost altitude about 2 miles out during a scheduled return trip to Columbus, according to a flight-tracking service.

The Coast Guard began searching the air after being notified soon after the plane’s disappearance. High waves and blustery conditions prevented smaller Coast Guard boats from the Cleveland area from deploying Thursday night. A 140-foot Coast Guard cutter joined a search that covered 128 square miles of the lake on Friday.

Mullen had held out the possibility of finding survivors Friday morning despite water temperatures that hovered around 40 degrees. But when asked if the twin-engine corporate jet could land safely on Lake Erie, he said, “Aircraft are not designed to float, especially in 12-foot seas.”

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 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, was registered to a limited liability company under the same Columbus address as Superior Beverage Group, the company where Fleming was president and CEO.

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

The search overnight was made difficult by snow squalls, high seas and darkness, Mullen said. It would have been the pilot’s responsibility to determine whether it was safe to fly Thursday night, he 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.

An FAA spokeswoman declined to comment on Friday. A spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board said investigators would be sent to Cleveland after the aircraft is recovered.

The aircraft was headed to Ohio State University Airport, northwest of downtown Columbus.

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Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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