Kerri Mullins had just taken a picture of the clear blue skies over Montana moments before she says she experienced the scariest 25 seconds of her life.
Mullins, from Arvada, Colo., was aboard United Airlines Flight 1676 from Denver to Billings when it hit turbulence so severe that people were tossed from their seats. Three flight attendants and two passengers were injured.
"I thought 'Wow! Yeah, this is it,'" Mullins said. "It's the most helpless feeling ever - to just be sitting there and not have any control over anything."
Mullins said the plane turned sharply to the right and started plunging.
"Everything flew out of everybody's hands," she said. "It was quite surreal."
Mullins said some passengers who weren't wearing seat belts hit the ceiling. When the plane stabilized, passengers began handing items back to each other that flew around the cabin - like phones and wallets.
One flight attendant remained hospitalized as of late Monday night, United spokesman Luke Punzenberger said in an email.
The Boeing 737-700 left Denver at 11:57 a.m. Monday with 114 passengers and five crewmembers aboard. The turbulence happened upon descent, and the plane landed at Billings Logan International Airport at 1:23 p.m.
Passenger Bill Dahlin told KTVQ that one woman hit the ceiling to hard that the panel above her cracked -- and another woman cried out for her baby, said Dahlin, who was uninjured.
"I have flown a lot and I do know you run into things like this," he told KTVQ. "This happened to be a lot rougher than what I'm accustomed to."
Mullins said the landing wasn't smooth either.
"We did hit a little bit of turbulence right before we landed, so it was very unnerving after we had just been through all of this," Mullins said.She said the pilot didn't make an announcement about the incident.
"I thought it was very interesting that the pilot never came on and said anything about what had happened," Mullins said. "There was nothing."
"Our primary focus is assisting our employees and passengers who were injured, and our flight safety team will review what happened," read a statement from the Chicago-based airline.
Fatal accidents have become rare, but air-safety experts warn that wind turbulence can stil bounce a plane dozens of feet while landing or taking off -- and hundreds of feet while cruising. About a dozen people suffer serious injuries, typically requiring a trip to the hospital, each year because of turbulence, the National Transportation Safety Board says. Dozens more people suffer minor injuries each year.
Airlines must report incidents with injuries or serious damage to the plane to the NTSB, and they occasionally report less-serious incidents. The reports describe passengers breaking ankles or fracturing ribs while dashing to the lavatory or simply leaving a seat belt unfastened.
Flight attendants are hurt even more often and often worse when thrown across the cabin like dolls or crushed by beverage carts.
Cipriano reports for KUSA-TV in Denver. Contributing: John Bacon; Bart Jansen.