Chief executive and family among six on missing plane
The chief executive of a drinks distribution company was piloting a plane carrying his wife, two sons and two other people when it quickly lost altitude after take-off in Ohio and vanished from radar, according to his family.
The parents of Superior Beverage Company executive John T Fleming confirmed he was piloting the plane from Cleveland's lakeshore airport to Columbus when it disappeared late on Thursday about two miles over Lake Erie.
Mr Fleming's father said the other five people on the plane were the executive's wife, two teenage sons, a neighbour and the neighbour's daughter. John W Fleming described his son as "an experienced pilot".
Crews combing Lake Erie for the plane remain hopeful that the occupants could be found alive, and were in search-and-rescue mode, not recovery mode, as they scoured waters about 50ft deep, said Captain Michael Mullen, the chief of response for the Ninth Coast Guard District.
Tracking service FlightAware logged only three location pings for the plane after take-off 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 towards a destination, Mr 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, Mr 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," Mr Mullen said at a news conference.
But when asked about the possibility of the two-engine jet landing safely on Lake Erie, he said: "Aircraft are not designed to float, especially in 12ft seas."
The search overnight was made difficult by snow squalls, high seas and darkness, Mr Mullen said. Weather prevented smaller Coast Guard boats in the Cleveland area from launching. A US Coast Guard helicopter and a Royal Canadian Air Force plane were used along with a Coast Guard ship from Detroit.
It would have been the pilot's responsibility to determine whether it was safe to fly, Mr Mullen said.
The Federal Aviation Administration said the Cessna Citation 525 plane left Burke at 10.50pm local time, 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 are heading to Cleveland.
The aircraft was headed to Ohio State University Airport north west of central Columbus.