By CHRIS BRUMMITT and JOAN LOWY
India said Friday it was expanding its search for the missing Malaysian jetliner to seas west of the Andaman Islands as the international hunt shifted toward the Indian Ocean amid signs that the jet may have flown on for hours after last contact.
A U.S. official told The Associated Press that the Malaysia Airlines plane sent signals to a satellite for four hours after the aircraft went missing early last Saturday, raising the possibility the jet carrying 239 people could have flown far from the current search areas.
Potentially, this vastly expands the area the lost jet might be. It also complicates an international search effort that has turned up no trace of the plane nearly a week after it vanished above the Gulf of Thailand between Malaysia and Vietnam in one of aviation history's most puzzling mysteries.
Much of the early search has focused east of Malaysia in the South China Sea, where the aircraft last communicated with air traffic base stations about an hour after departing on a flight to Beijing.
A similar-sized search is also being conducted in the Strait of Malacca, west of Malaysia, because of military radar sightings that might indicate the plane turned in that direction after its last contact, passing back over the Malay Peninsula and heading westward.
The White House said the U.S. may be drawn into a new phase of the search in the vast Indian Ocean. The U.S. Navy 7th Fleet said it is moving one of its ships, the USS Kidd, into the Strait of Malacca.
Six Indian navy and coast guard ships plus reconnaissance planes have searched eastern parts of Andaman seas over the past three days, and were expanding their search to areas west of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands chain Friday, said V.S.R. Murty, an Indian Coast Guard inspector.
Vietnam, which has been heavily involved in the search from the start, downgraded its hunt in the South China Sea to regular from emergency by reducing the frequency of aircraft flights and cruises by ships involved, said Lt. Gen. Vo Van Tuan, deputy chief of staff of Vietnamese People's Army.
"We are prepared for the case that the search mission will last long and we have to maintain our forces that way," he said.
The U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the situation by name, said the Boeing 777-200 wasn't transmitting data to the satellite, but was instead sending out a signal to establish contact.
Boeing offers a satellite service that can receive a stream of data during flight on how the aircraft is functioning and relay the information to the plane's home base. The idea is to provide information before the plane lands on whether maintenance work or repairs are needed.
Malaysia Airlines didn't subscribe to that service, but the plane still had the capability to connect with the satellite and was automatically sending pings, the official said.
"It's like when your cellphone is off but it still sends out a little 'I'm here' message to the cellphone network," the official said. "That's how sometimes they can triangulate your position even though you're not calling because the phone every so often sends out a little bleep. That's sort of what this thing was doing."
The plane had enough fuel to fly about four more hours, the U.S. official said.
Boeing did not comment.
Messages involving a different, more rudimentary data service also were received from the airliner for a short time after the plane's transponder — a device used to identify the plane to radar — went silent, the official said.
If the plane had disintegrated during flight or had suffered some other catastrophic failure, all signals — the pings to the satellite, the data messages and the transponder — would be expected to stop at the same time. Experts say a pilot or passengers with technical expertise may have switched off the transponder in the hope of flying undetected.
On Thursday, The Wall Street Journal quoted U.S. investigators as saying they suspected the plane stayed in the air for about four hours after its last confirmed contact, citing engine data automatically transmitted to the ground as part of a routine maintenance program. The newspaper later corrected the account to say the information came from the plane's satellite communication link, not the engines.
Hishammuddin dismissed the initial report. He said Boeing and Rolls-Royce, the engine manufacturer, both said the last engine data was received at 1:07 a.m., 23 minutes before the plane's transponders, which identify it to commercial radar and nearby aircraft, stopped working.
Asked if it were possible that the plane kept flying for several hours, Hishammuddin said: "Of course. We can't rule anything out. This is why we have extended the search. We are expanding our search into the Andaman Sea." The sea is northwest of the Malay Peninsula.
He said Malaysia was asking for radar data from India and other neighboring countries to see if they can trace it flying northwest. India says its navy, air force and coast guard will search for the plane in the south Andaman Sea.
"Because of new information, we may be part of an effort to open a new search area in the Indian Ocean," White House spokesman Jay Carney said earlier Thursday, declining to offer additional details about that information or the new area.
Experts say that if the plane crashed into the ocean, some debris should be floating even if most of the jet is submerged. Past experience shows that finding the wreckage can take weeks or even longer, especially if the location of the plane is in doubt.