All Steven knew was what time and where. A part-time pilot from the Chicago area, he was picking up a total stranger in his single-engine plane, a passenger who needed to fly more than a thousand miles, across state lines, from the midwest to the east coast.
“Within 15, 20 minutes of arriving and meeting the person, we were in the plane and I got the engine fired up, ready to go,” he said.
“It felt weighty,” he added. “Every time I fly, even by myself, there’s sort of this heightened level of alertness … This flight was even one more notch above that because this is someone who I don’t know, they don’t know me..”
The passenger was seeking reproductive health services and needed to travel to a state where they could access them. Steven is just one of hundreds of pilots across the US, who have been volunteering the use of their small planes to fly people seeking abortions and other services from states that have outlawed it to states that haven’t.
The effort to connect volunteer pilots with patients is led by Elevated Access, a non-profit organization based out of Illinois. It was founded in April in response to a growing number of women being forced to embark on expensive and time-consuming journeys in attempts to obtain abortions.
Steven first found out about Elevated Access through an aviation article online, in late spring, shortly after the leak of the supreme court decision overturning the constitutional right to abortion. “I wasn’t looking to do it, but when I read that I thought, ‘Wow, this sounds like something I care about, in a way that I could actually be very useful as a pilot,’” he recalled.
Indeed, since the supreme court formally stripped away federal abortion protection rights in June, Elevated Access has seen a giant uptick in volunteer pilots, with 870 pilots offering to transport patients across state lines for abortions and gender-affirming care.
For many patients, traveling across state lines is not only expensive, it is also time-consuming and risky. Many already have to fight logistical obstacles such as scheduling challenges and long waiting periods to get an abortion, which shortens the access window – meaning many simply can’t get it done in time.
Elevated Access was set up to ease those difficulties. Through air travel and the 3,000 general aviation airports scattered across the country, it has flown hundreds of missions – and recently marked a milestone by completing its first all-female pilot mission, involving seven states and two solo female pilots flying a 1,400-mile relay to transport a client. Only 6% of pilots in the US are women, it noted.
The flights are anonymous. “When you go to any normal airport, you have a lot of issues you have to deal with, one of which is identification and not everybody has a valid ID. We can take people who are undocumented,” said Fiona, an Elevated Access spokesperson.
“We don’t actually need any identification to transport somebody. The only thing we need to know about them is how much they weigh … to balance the plane, because these are four-seaters or six-seaters.”
Many of the patients, she says, have never flown before. “Saying, ‘Hey, go down to Atlanta airport – the largest airport in the world – and good luck, get on the plane,’” she says, “I mean, it’s so daunting compared to driving 15 minutes away from your house” where “a pilot [is] waiting to greet you and take you directly to his plane. No baggage claim, no check-in desk, no TSA.
“It’s just a kinder, gentler experience for someone who’s going through a lot.”
As a referral-only organization, Elevated Access connects passengers to pilots through referrals by its partner organizations such as Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Federation.
“The patient care organization assesses the situation and if it seems like we would be a good candidate to partner with, they call us. Then we go out and talk to our pilots and try to find one or two relevant pilots to that particular trip,” Fiona said.
Due to the sensitivities involved, pilots who sign up to fly for Elevated Access are heavily vetted, and the organization requires they have at least 200 hours of pilot-in-command time – twice the amount the Federal Aviation Administration requires for a commercial pilot certificate.
“Given the space we’re in, we also ask for references. We do background checks. We try to make sure that these folks are comfortable with our mission,” she says.
“Not everybody wants to do this kind of work for obvious reasons. It’s controversial.”
The majority of the volunteers have full-time jobs, and range from engineers and high school teachers to active-duty air force officers.
“I know one of my bosses is pretty conservative … I know it could come at some type of cost, either with promotion ratings or some type of performance report stuff,” one air force officer told the magazine Defense One about his flights for Elevated Access.
“But I think this is worth it. I really think this is worth it. Because this matters on a very basic human level, to just get people the treatment they need.”
The flying costs are covered by the volunteer pilots, and the trips are free for passengers. Pilots pay for fuel, and those who do not own their own aircraft pay for rental fees.
“This is their weekend pastime, if you will,” Fiona says. “Fuel alone for one of our flights is several hundred dollars, so every time a pilot does a flight, several hundred dollars of gas money is coming out of their pocket.”
To Steven, there is a strange irony in his work with Elevated Access.
“We constantly read, as general aviation pilots, about how lucky we are to have the flying freedoms that we have in the US compared to other countries, with some very minor exceptions,” he says of being a pilot in America. “I could basically hop in my plane anytime I want, fly anywhere I want. I don’t have to talk to a single air traffic controller. I could file a flight plan and I don’t have to check in with some government entity.
“I think as pilots, we’re very proud of the freedom we have and so it seems appropriate for me to use the freedom I have to help out people whose much more fundamental freedoms – [such as] rights to medical care or decisions about how they want to control their own body – are being jeopardized right now.”