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CBS News: Communications Systems On Malaysian Jet Shut Down Separately

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/CBS News/AP) - Two communications systems on board the missing Malaysian Airlines plane were shut down separately, CBS News confirmed Thursday, a development that suggests the systems were deliberately turned off.

CBS News correspondent Bob Orr reported the two systems used to track Flight 370 were shut down sequentially, just before the Boeing 777 apparently changed course and turned west.

While that could suggest a deliberate act, CBS News aviation and safety expert Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger cautioned that it is "conceivable" that the communications systems could shut down sequentially on their own in the event of a catastrophic electrical failure. He said the systems in a plane are so compartmentalized that things could shut down in a cascading, domino fashion instead of all at once.

Still, Sullenberger -- who gained fame for landing US Airways Flight 1549 safely on the Hudson River in 2009 -- acknowledged that is a remote possibility.

Earlier Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported that investigators suspect the Boeing 777 was flying for about four hours after it fell off radar screens on Saturday. That suspicion was fueled by data transmitted from the plane's Rolls Royce engines that's automatically downloaded during the flight, the Journal reported. The paper cited "two people familiar with the details" of the investigation.

CBS News' Orr also reported Thursday that there were technical indicators suggesting the plane continued to fly for an unspecified period of time after civilian air traffic controllers lost radar contact with the jet. Sources say the Boeing 777 continued to attempt to transmit routine data about the plane's engines and performance to satellites. Malaysian authorities and Boeing apparently did not downlink the data, so details from plane's transmissions are not known.

But, the fact that the jet was continuing to send signals is a strong indication that the jet did not crash immediately after radar contact was lost. The engines instead continued to run, Orr reports, meaning the plane continued in flight or perhaps was on the ground but still producing power. The were 239 people on board the flight.

In addition, U.S. radar experts looked at radar blips showing the jet heading in a different direction, and say there is strong reason to believe it could be images of Flight 370, CBS 2's Dick Brennan reported.

"An additional search area may be opened in the Indian Ocean," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday.

The Journal also reported that U.S. counterterrorism officials are pursuing the possibility that a pilot or someone else on board that plane may have diverted it with the intention of using it later for another purpose.

But U.S. officials insist there is no established terror connection.

"There's been no nexus made to terrorism at all. Not ruling it out," Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said.

Malaysian officials categorically denied the reports that the plane kept flying.

"Those reports are inaccurate," said Transport Minister Hishamuddin Hussein. He said the last transmission of data from Flight 370 came before the plane's signal disappeared from radar and communications with the crew were lost, and indicated "everything was normal."

"As far as Rolls Royce and Boeing are concerned, those reports are inaccurate," said Hussein, adding that the government had contacted  both Boeing and Rolls Royce, and both said the last engine data was received at 1:07 a.m., around 23 minutes before the plane lost contact.

"This opens up a whole host of new questions," CBS News aviation and safety expert Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger said on "CBS This Morning."

"There's still much we don't know," added Sullenberger. "Apparently we were sent engine data that includes altitude and speed, but not direction or position. So it actually enlarges many-fold the potential search area."

"We still don't know: Is it rapid depressurization in which everyone is unconscious? Is it a criminal act? Is it an act of terrorism? Is there some incapacitation of the pilots? We still don't know," Sullenberger said.

CBS News contacted Rolls Royce twice on Thursday morning at the company's U.K. headquarters. The company refused to comment on the Wall Street Journal report.

Meanwhile, the search continued for the missing jet. 

Authorities on Thursday expanded the search west toward India on Thursday given the revelations that it may have kept flying.

Planes dispatched earlier Thursday to examine an area where Chinese satellite images showed what might have been debris from the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 found nothing, officials told CBS News.

Click here for more coverage from our colleagues at CBS News.

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