RDU officials say Southwest Flight 220 was heading to Chicago's Midway Airport when it struck a bird as it was departing around 6:15 p.m.
Passengers told ABC11 that they had just settled in for the flight when it happened.
"Well, it was kind of a brutal take off," said passenger George Shackleton. "We all of the sudden heard a big boom and just rattling and vibration after that."
"It was making a weird noise on the left engine side and then it smelled really weird and then it started shooting out flames," said passenger Shelley Chan.
After several gut-wrenching minutes, Chan said everyone went into panic mode, even one of the flight attendants.
"The flight attendant, she just seemed a little frantic, and I think it freaked out the other passengers," said Chan.
Shelly Tranchita says that's when the pilot announced they had hit a bird and would make an emergency landing. Crews quickly doled out detailed instruction to each passenger.
"We all had jobs so A, B and C, and I was in the B seat. My job was to help people off the plane if we were to do an emergency evacuation," said Tranchita.
Tranchita remembers circling at about 10,000 feet for roughly 30 minutes. In the last moments, the flight crew chanted "Head down, Stay down," right before a smooth landing, and an uproar of relief.
"There were people crying and we were nervous and I was holding the gentleman's hand next to me, and it was just a great feeling to be on the ground," said Tranchita.
It was frightening for those passengers and crew, but also drivers on Interstate 40 watching from the ground.
"I've seen many jets fly over, out of RDU over Interstate 40 and, when I saw the flames, that was very unusual," said Paul, who asked that we not use his last name. "I'd never seen that before."
No one was injured.
Southwest says the damaged aircraft will be grounded for a few days while the airline investigates.
Bird-plane collisions at the airport have happened before. In fact, 14 incidents are on record at RDU so far this year.
"We have very few bird strikes when you consider we have approximately 200,000 takeoffs and landings a year," said Mindy Hamlin with the RDU Authority.