A passenger jet plunged through the air “like a rollercoaster” after it flew into a thunderstorm, dropping thousands of feet as it was bombarded with strong winds, hail and lightning.
“Things were flying. Passengers throwing up. Scariest flight of my life,” said Jesse Esparza, who was aboard the American Airlines flight from San Antonio, New Mexico to Phoenix, Arizona.
With its nose and windscreen badly damaged by hail, the plane was forced to divert to El Paso for an emergency landing.
“I never thought I’d have to buy in-flight WiFi to message my mum goodbye,” Mr Esparza added.
Pictures of the plane on the runway showed its nose caved in and its windows covered by a web of cracks after it was battered by hailstones of up to three inches in size.
“I keep looking back at the photos and getting chills,” said another passenger, who did not want to be named. “We had no idea how bad it was until after we landed.”
She told ABC15 several passengers had panic attacks after the aircraft hit severe turbulence about 30 minutes after taking off.
Mobile phones flew through the air, drinks splashing the ceiling, and passengers sharing sick bags during “five minutes of hell”, she added.
Mr Esparza said the plane then dropped “like a rollercoaster”.
He added: “We dropped so hard that objects in people’s laps start flying inside the aircraft. My seatbelt is pulling against my waist keeping me in my seat. Babies screaming. I start hyperventilating. I grab my phone and sign on to the WiFi. I text my mom that I love her.
“The lady behind us is screaming that she needs another bag to throw up in. Even the flight attendants are freaking out.”
There were no reported injuries to the 130 passengers and five crew on board.
Stu Ostro, of the Weather Channel, shared radar images which appeared to show the aircraft flew through the eye of the storm. Meteorologists have expressed disbelief that the Airbus 319 flew through such a violent storm.
“Wow, that’s really crazy,” tweeted Ken Waters, a forecaster with the National Weather Service (NWS.) “It would have been so easy to divert around.”
Mike Smith, the former president of AccuWeather, suggested the flight’s crew did not “heed the storm warnings”.
“This is yet example of airline pilots not using, or improperly using, their onboard weather radars,” he said. ”It is unbelievable that these dangerous incidents continue.”
However, Matthias Steiner, director of the aviation applications programme at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research, said pilots were “handicapped” by the weather information they receive.
“The radar data is different than you get from Weather Channel or the Weather Service,” he told the Washington Post. “What you have in the cockpit has a much shorter wavelength. They don’t get the full picture, just the front end.”
Passengers on the American Airlines flight praised the pilots who landed the aircraft despite radioing to air traffic control to say they had “virtually no forward visibility”.
An airline spokesman said the plane was now awaiting repairs for damage to the nose, windshield panels and a cockpit side window. He said the engines, including the fan blades, were not damaged.
“We never want to disrupt our customers’ travel plans, and we are sorry for the trouble this caused,” he added.