Passenger Jet Dives 1,600 Feet to Avoid Skydiving Plane

Spirit Airlines
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Spirit Airlines

A Spirit Airlines flight went into a "horrifying" 1,600-foot dive—prompting screaming passengers to fear for their lives—after a close call with a small plane.

The Federal Aviation Administration told the Associated Press on Monday that it was investigating the incident in the skies over Michigan.

The Airbus A319 jetliner took off from Detroit Metropolitan Airport with 126 passengers and a crew of five, bound for Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. It was over Tecumseh. Mich., at about 8:22 p.m. ET when controllers reported a skydiving jump plane was nearby, the FAA said.

"Air traffic controllers notified the Spirit pilot that a skydiving jump plane was climbing just south of the jetliner's position," FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Cory said in an email to the AP.

"The Spirit pilot confirmed that he could see the smaller aircraft on his Terminal Collision Avoidance System. ... A minute later, the Spirit jet received an automated TCAS warning that required him to begin an immediate 1,600-foot descent to 12,800 feet from a previous altitude of 14,400 feet."

At the closest, the two planes were 1.6 miles apart horizontally and 400 feet vertically, Cory added.

Cory told the AP that the skydiving plane was flying "under Visual Flight Rules, under which pilots are responsible for seeing and avoiding other aircraft."

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Spirit Airlines' spokeswoman Misty Pinson said in an emailed statement that "our pilots followed appropriate procedures and adjusted their flight path upon receiving an advisory of another possible aircraft in range."

She said no one was injured and the flight then continued to Dallas-Fort Worth without incident.

Janet Dunnabeck of Whitney, Texas, who was returning with her 10- and 19-year-old daughters from a visit with Michigan relatives, told the AP the dive was "horrifying."

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"Every person on that plane was screaming. We thought we were going down," she said.

Dunnabeck added that overhead luggage bins opened, drinks spilled and flight attendants hit their heads during the dive.

Jolene Dunnabeck, 10, said that it "felt like we were falling, we were going to hit the ground and die."

The AP said the pilot only told passengers why the dive happened after the maneuver, announcing there had been a "flight control issue."

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Gabrielle Dunnabeck, 19, told the wire service that she, her mother and sister wanted answers about what had gone wrong.

"We're still wondering who dropped the ball," she said.

—By NBC News' Ian Johnston. The Associated Press contributed to this report.