Malaysia Airlines plane (illustration)
Malaysia Airlines plane (illustration) Reuters

An American official said on Thursday that a Malaysia Airlines plane sent signals to a satellite for four hours after the aircraft went missing, an indication that it was still flying for hundreds of miles or more, reports The Associated Press (AP).

The comments echo ones made by United States investigators on Wednesday night. These unnamed investigators told The Wall Street Journal that the plane’s engines had continued transmitting data to the ground for hours after its last confirmed report.

Six days after the plane with 239 people aboard disappeared, Malaysian authorities expanded their search westward toward India on Thursday, saying the aircraft may have flown for several hours after its last contact with the ground shortly after takeoff from Kuala Lumpur for Beijing.

"This situation is unprecedented. MH370 went completely silent over the open ocean," said Malaysia's acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, according to AP.

"This is a crisis situation. It is a very complex operation, and it is not obviously easy. We are devoting all our energies to the task at hand."

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 told AP.

"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.

Terrorism has not been ruled out as a possible cause for the plane’s disappearance, and reports that the plane turned around shortly before disappearing have raised suspicions that it may have been hijacked.

Investigators also found that there were Iranian nationals aboard the flight traveling on stolen European passports; however, Malaysian police say the men are not believed to be members of any terrorist group.

The mysterious disappearance of the airplane and its 239 passengers deepened earlier this week with reports that families of the missing travelers were still hearing ring tones when calling their missing loved ones.