Investigators are working to find out how an airline employee managed to steal an empty Horizon Air turboprop plane, and take off from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport before fatally crashing into a small island in the Puget Sound nearby.
Officials said the plane later crashed into the sea.
Mr Russell, 29, who authorities say was suicidal and did not have a pilot's licence, died after the plane plummeted into a small island yesterday. He expressed both remorse for what he was doing and enthusiasm for attempting aerobatics, and at times seemed to imply that he meant to end his own life.
Gary Howell, a Wasilla High track and field coach, said he remembered Russell as a amusing guy who also had a smile and a joke and was a great team player.
The suspect was identified as a 29-year-old Pierce county resident who "acted alone", the sheriff's office added, confirming that there were "no passengers on the plane" when it crashed.
The plane then crashed about an hour into the flight in a wooded area on Ketron Island in the southern end of Puget Sound.
Two F-15 fighter jets took to the air from a base in Portland, Oregon, and were on the scene within minutes.
Troyer said the man who stole the plane is a mechanic at the airport.
Mike Mathews, a friend of Russell, said at a press conference the incident came as a "complete shock".
Witnesses described seeing the aircraft performing barrel rolls and loop-the-loops as the military planes directed it away from highly-populated areas and towards Ketron Island.
Investigators expect they will be able to recover both the cockpit voice recorder and the event data recorder from the plane. "They're not as easy to fly as, say, a Cessna 150, so I don't know how he achieved the experience that he did", Beck said.
In one snippet, he even seems to consider landing at the runway he is being directed to, before saying "This is probably jail time for life, huh? We believe he was in uniform", said Alaska Air Group CEO Brad Tilden. "Just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess". He used a pushback tractor to maneuver a Bombardier Q400 turboprop aircraft for take-off around 8 p.m. that night. The FBI is now investigating, while Alaska Air is cooperating with authorities and their own safety team to make sense of exactly what went down.
"Normal operations at Sea-Tac Airport have resumed".
"Okay this insane. A pilot on the plane in front of us just went rogue and took off on an empty plane bypassing orders from the tower", tweeted Ben Schaechter, a passenger on an airplane that was taxiing to take off before the incident.
"It is highly fragmented", she said of the plane.
Officials said Saturday (Sunday NZ time) that the man was a Horizon employee for three and a half years and had clearance to be among aircraft, but that to their knowledge, he wasn't a licensed pilot.
"It was unfathomable, it was something out of a movie", King told the Times.