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  1. ITV Report

Last words of joyriding Seattle plane thief: 'It's going to disappoint them to hear that I did this'

The man who stole an empty passenger plane from a Seattle airport and took it on a doomed joyride told air traffic control he knew he had let his loved ones down.

In what is assumed to be his final conversation before crashing the plane into an island, Richard Russell said: "I’ve got a lot of people that care about me. It’s going to disappoint them to hear that I did this."

The family of the 29-year-old airline worker, whose body is yet to be found, said they are "stunned and heartbroken" at the "kind and gentle" man's dramatic crime and presumed death.

A statement from Russell's family, read to the media by a family friend, described the man known as "Beebo" as "a faithful husband, a loving son and a good friend".

"It may seem difficult for those watching at home to believe, but Beebo was a warm, compassionate man," they said.

Although he has not been officially identified, US media named Russell as the man who stole the plane and performed stunts while being pursued by fighter jets before eventually crashing on a small island in the Puget Sound.

He had worked for Horizon Air for more than three years and is presumed dead following the crash on Friday.

It has since emerged he had full clearance to be on the runway at Sea-Tac International Airport in Washington.

Russell appears to have used a machine called a pushback tractor to first manoeuvre the Horizon Air Q400 so he could board and then take off from Sea-Tac International Airport on Friday evening.

In the audio recording from the flight, an air traffic controller can be heard trying to convince Russell to land the plane.

Russell tells him he is "just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess".

Russell did not have a pilot’s licence and officials said it was unclear how he attained the skills to do loops in the aircraft before crashing on tiny Ketron Island, southwest of Tacoma, Washington.

They said he had gone through various background checks to get clearance to be in the secured area.

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Federal investigators said the plane broke into many pieces when it crashed but they still anticipated they would be able to recover data recorders from the aircraft.

Debra Eckrote, a regional chief with the National Transportation Safety Board, said the wings were off the plane and the fuselage was upside down.

Video showed fiery flames amid trees on the island, which is sparsely populated and only accessible by ferry.

The plane was filmed doing loops in the air before crashing. Credit: Facebook/John Waldron

No structures on the ground were damaged, Alaska Airlines said.

Ed Troyer, a spokesman for the sheriff’s department, said F-15 aircraft took off out of Portland, Oregon, were in the air “within a few minutes”, and the pilots kept “people on the ground safe”.

“The greatest threat we have to aviation is the insider threat,” Erroll Southers, a former FBI agent and transportation security expert, told The Associated Press.

“Here we have an employee who was vetted to the level to have access to the aircraft and had a skill set proficient enough to take off with that plane.”

He said the man could have caused mass destruction.

“If he had the skill set to do loops with a plane like this, he certainly had the capacity to fly it into a building and kill people on the ground.”