Videos taken by onlookers during Mr. Russell’s flight showed the plane doing deep dives, broad loops and at least one upside-down roll. At the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, thousands of passengers in the terminal or left sitting in planes on the tarmac were delayed.
“I got a lot of people that care about me, and it’s going to disappoint them to hear that I did this,” Mr. Russell could be heard saying. “I would like to apologize to each and every one of them. Just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess. Never really knew it until now.”
The episode raised questions about the little-known details of life on the tarmac, in the loading, fueling and cleaning operations of airplanes — unglamorous work that is critical to public safety but often poorly paid.
Tim Orr, who also works at the Seattle-Tacoma airport, and who said he had known Mr. Russell since they were both 12, said his friend had been frustrated that his airport job did not pay the $15 minimum wage that many other airport workers receive, and had talked about leaving to do something else. But Mr. Russell, his friend said, also loved the travel opportunities that came with working for an airline.
Mr. Russell and his wife were active church members, Mr. Orr said, “so he doesn’t really fit the bill of someone who would steal an airplane.”
“Funniest person in the room,” he added. “Nicest person in the room.”
At a news conference on Saturday, Mike Mathews, a family friend, read a statement on behalf of Mr. Russell’s family. “We are stunned and heartbroken,” according to the statement, which described Mr. Russell as a faithful husband, a loving son and a good friend.
Referring to the video recordings, the family pointed out that Mr. Russell did not intend to harm anyone. “He was right in saying that there are so many people who have loved him.”