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Update: 'We were praying for a miracle'; San Francisco-bound flight takes frightening dive near Maui

Passenger recalls midair scare during December United flight from Hawaii to SFO
Passenger recalls midair scare during December United flight from Hawaii to SFO 01:57

SAN FRANCISCO -- A United Airlines 777 leaving Maui for San Francisco in December plunged toward the ocean for 21 seconds shortly after takeoff and came within 800 feet of sea level, flight tracking data show.

The incident, which is coming to light only now, was first reported by the website Air Current.  Neither United nor the FAA indicated anyone was injured on United Flight 1722 on December 18.

The plunge occurred a little over a minute after takeoff, the data show.

The plane lost more than half its altitude and came within 775 feet of sea level, according to the data from FlightRadar24. The plane gained speed as it dropped 1,425 feet from 2,200 feet before regaining its climb out of Kahului on the island of Maui.

The data suggest the remainder of the flight was uneventful. The flight arrived at San Francisco International 27 minutes early and later that same day continued on to Chicago without incident.

Rod Williams II and his family were sitting near the back of the plane when the Boeing 777 made a terrifying plunge shortly after taking off from Kahului Airport in Hawaii.

Williams told CNN the plane seemed to be flying normally at first, but then he said the plane climbed at "a concerning rate" for a few seconds.

"It felt like you were climbing to the top of a roller coaster. It was at that point," Williams said. "There were a number of screams on the plane. Everybody knew that something was out of the ordinary, or at least that this was not normal."

The experience was harrowing for passengers.

"When the plane started to nosedive, multiple screams are being let out, at that point," Williams said. "You're trying your best to maintain your composure -- there's obviously kids on the flight -- nobody really knows what's going on, but at the same time, you're concerned. You don't know if this is an issue, but it was certainly out of the ordinary."

Williams said he and his wife were sitting on either side of their children and glanced at each other during the steep descent.

"It's tense, you don't really have a chance to speak or to conjure up words, you're just kind of gripping the seat and praying under your breath," he said. "I asked her later and sure enough ... we were praying for a miracle, because we felt like this could be it."

Flight attendants comforted some passengers after the incident and there was an announcement on the loudspeaker about 10 minutes later.

"Someone from the cockpit got on the intercom and said, 'Alright, folks, you probably felt a couple G's on that one, but everything's gonna be OK. We're gonna be alright,' " Williams said.

Williams studied aviation in college, so he had some idea of what was happening, but his daughter, 10, and son, 7, had never flown before their trip to Hawaii, so they didn't really know what was happening. They were scared, Williams said, but his son still wants him to play United by flying him on his shoulders.

The rest of the flight went smoothly, but Williams said there was a strong crosswind when they landed in San Francisco. They then took another flight home to Ohio.

Williams wasn't aware of how close the plane came to the water until Sunday night -- eight weeks after the flight -- when his father showed him the report on the incident.

Williams said he has tried to focus on the wonderful memories they made on what he called a once in a lifetime vacation and that he didn't want his kids to be afraid to fly so they can enjoy future trips.

"Now that I know, statistically what had happened, and that we were about 5 to 5.2 seconds from hitting the water, you know, I'm definitely counting my blessings," he said. "I'm reminded that when my wife and I pray together before the flights that, you know, there's a God that's here in that."

He said he was grateful for the pilots' "amazing, amazing recovery efforts," and said they should be praised for that.

"You read about these things, but then when you get to experience it, it's just, sobering, you know. I'm very thankful to be here today."

United said it conducted an investigation with the FAA and the pilots union "that ultimately resulted in the pilots receiving additional training," adding the investigation is ongoing.

CBS News aviation safety analyst Robert Sumwalt called the dip "an alarming event." 

"The good thing is you had two trained pilots who were able to act and keep this from becoming a major catastrophe," said Sumwalt, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board and a retired 737 captain.

The pilots have a combined 25,000 hours of flight time.

"The United Airlines flight crew reported the incident to the FAA as part of a voluntary safety reporting program. The agency reviewed the incident and took appropriate action," the FAA told CNN.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board said Monday that the investigative agency is still seeking information about the Dec. 18 incident

That same day, another flight out of Hawaii experienced severe turbulence, and 25 people onboard were injured. The storm system wreaking havoc in Hawaii was the same one that caused Southwest Airlines to scrub thousands of flights during the holiday season because they were unable to recover.

The airline is now being investigated by federal officials over the handling of its schedule after the massive storm.

The NTSB has not initiated an investigation into the United incident at this time.

"I think there are a number of factors that may have led to this, weather could have been a contributing factor," said Sumwalt. "I understand there were thunderstorms in the area at the time. It could be something as simple and yet as lethal as a distraction in the cockpit."

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