CLEVELAND (WKBN/WCMH/AP) – Two Boardman High School graduates and their children were among six people aboard a plane that disappeared shortly after takeoff from Cleveland’s Burke Lakefront Airport overnight, according to family members.
John T. Fleming is the CEO of Superior Beverage Group. He and his wife, Suzanne, graduated from Boardman.
Superior Beverage is now headquartered in Columbus but began in Youngstown at a building on Victoria Road. Fleming was instrumental in helping it grow, by buying other distributorships before it eventually moved out of Youngstown.
“To be in 33 counties and do it as efficiently as they do is a tribute to John and his forward thinking,” said Walter Kohowski, one of Fleming’s former co-workers.
Kohowski remembers when Fleming came on board and developed his skills, which would lead to a path of stardom in the company. Fleming quickly climbed up the ladder at Superior Beverage.
“He worked on trucks, he worked in the warehouse. He did everything needed to be done in [the operations] end of business,” Kohowski said.
Then Fleming worked in sales to learn that end.
Fleming’s parents confirmed to multiple media outlets that he was the pilot of the Columbus-bound plane carrying three children and three adults when it vanished from radar late Thursday about two miles over Lake Erie.
Fleming’s father told The Blade newspaper in Toledo that 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.”
Joseph McHenry, Executive Vice President of Superior Beverage, released the following statement Friday afternoon:
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 underway, 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.
NBC4 in Columbus reports that one of Fleming’s sons, Jack, is a sophomore at Olentangy Liberty High School. Delaware County Special Olympics told NBC4 his other son, Andrew, is one of their athletes.
The plane, a Cessna Citation 525, left Burke Lakefront Airport in Cleveland at 10:50 p.m. Thursday. Airport officials told WKYC that the passengers on board went to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ game at Quicken Loans Arena.
The FAA said the aircraft was en route to Ohio State University’s airport hangar when it stopped appearing on the radar. The Coast Guard said they lost contact with it two to three miles into Lake Erie.
They searched all day Friday with a cutter on the water and a helicopter in the sky.
“We’re actively searching out there for any signs of survivors, any people on board the aircraft, the aircraft itself. We’re still searching,” U.S. Coast Guard Captain Michael Mullen said Friday morning.
The US Coast Guard is halting the search at 7:30 p.m. Friday and will start again at daybreak.
Weather prevented a boat search overnight, but a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter and Canadian air crew in a plane continued searching into the evening. A ship from Detroit was also sent to help with the search.
The search area is 128 square miles in water 50 feet deep. The missing plane did have an Emergency Locating Transmitter.
“There’s several faint hints of an ELT, but we have not received a steady pulse of an ELT signal at this time,” Mullen said.
The Coast Guard said that 12 to 14-foot waves and 30 to 35 mph winds, along with occasional flurries, made the initial search difficult. The sea calmed and visibility improved later in the day.
“If he has perished, a bright light was extinguished in the beer distributor business,” Kohowski said.
Tipton Distributing now operates out of the building where Superior Beverage used to be.
Others who know the Flemings shared stories about Suzanne Fleming and how she would check in drivers when they returned at the end of their day.
John Fleming is a cousin of the Antonucci family, who founded Superior Beverage.