In post-Roe America, pilots take the abortion battle to the skies
From 1,800 feet in the air, the view from a tiny, four-seater plane reduces the Chicago suburbs to a vast landscape of miniature patterns. Above us, flocks of geese fly in v-shape formations beneath sheets of white clouds.
Sitting behind a small wheel, the pilot removes his jacket, places his glasses on his nose and examines an iPad perched between his knees. He studies a map covered in a series of overlapping circles, each of which indicates one of thousands of small airports across the country.
The pilot can land his plane at any of them. Today, the destination is one in rural Wisconsin.
Part-way through the flight, the pilot tells me to look out the window. He points to a stretch of land marked by a smattering of farms and one, arterial road.
“That’s the Wisconsin border,” the pilot tells me. “Doesn’t look like much from up here.”
But down below, that sliver of land now marks a barrier between legal and illegal abortion care. Last summer, after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, near-total bans on abortion went into effect in 14 states, Wisconsin among them. But absent a federal ban on abortion, those laws don’t apply at 1,800 feet in the air, making the sky a new, open frontier for ferrying providers and people seeking abortion services in the country’s less restrictive states.
In federally regulated airspace, states and individual municipalities have zero jurisdiction over whether choosing to terminate a pregnancy – or helping someone do so – is against the law.
That’s why I’m sitting next to the pilot, battling air sickness, on a demo flight in his single-engine, four-seat Mooney propeller plane named Buzz. He’s part of a growing network of pilots who, through a fledgling Illinois nonprofit, are volunteering time, equipment and expertise to help connect people with abortion care. But there are risks, too, from antagonism and harassment from pro-life groups to potential legal threats, which is why he asked WBEZ to not use his name in this story.
“Pilots take tremendous pride in the freedom we have to fly,” he says. “I can fly anywhere I want to. I don’t have to file a flight plan. I don’t have to talk to air traffic control. It felt right to use these freedoms to help someone whose freedoms are being threatened.”
A coming migration
The pilot, who is in his mid 50s, is one of nearly 1,000 volunteer hobby pilots who have offered to fly with Elevated Access, an Illinois nonprofit established in April after signs began to point to the U.S. Supreme Court reversal of Roe v. Wade. The nonprofit was founded by a former IT manager and pilot named Mike; like the pilot I flew with on a windy November morning, he gives only his first name for personal safety reasons.
The idea for a volunteer organization that would transport women seeking abortion care, and physicians who provide it, to states where it is safe and legal to do so, began with a volunteer stint Mike did at Midwest Access Coalition. “As a pilot, I was looking for some way that I could use my skills to help people,” Mike says. “And being someone who believes in someone’s ability to make their own choices, I thought helping people access abortion could be it.”
There is an increasing need for that kind of service, says Alison Dreith, director of strategic partnerships for the coalition. States such as Illinois, where abortion remains legal, expect up to two-thirds increase in patients traveling from states that ban or heavily restrict the procedure, according to reporting WBEZ did earlier this year. Over the past six months, Dreith, who is based in Southern Illinois, has taken panicked calls from Wisconsin, Louisiana and even Texas.
“I absolutely never imagined we could use private pilots and it came just in the knick of time for the health care crisis we’re in,” Dreith says. “That’s the beauty and the sadness of Elevated Access.”
Recently, Dreith connected Mike with a Louisiana woman whose ride had canceled just hours before her appointment at an abortion clinic in Kansas. Dreith looked into plane tickets, but they averaged nearly $1,000 and included several connecting flights.
That’s when she called Mike. He told Dreith about a pilot in Arkansas who might be able to help once the woman reschedules her appointment. (The two are still working out the details.)
One benefit of tiny planes is that they can land at tiny airports. Residents of rural Wisconsin might live hours from O’Hare or Milwaukee International Airport, but they likely live just 20 minutes from a smaller, regional airport.
Another is the comparatively relaxed security and surveillance. “Nobody’s asking you why you’re there,” says Mike. “You don’t have to go through security. There’s no tickets, there’s no baggage check. You don’t even have to tell them your name. All they need to know is your weight.”
A gray legal zone
Still, flying for an organization like Elevated Access comes with risk, says Mary Ziegler, a law professor at University of California, Davis and an expert in the current twists and turns in American abortion legislation.
Those risks echo a debate that’s currently unfolding on the ground. Some fear, for example, that Texas residents could pursue civil litigation against anyone who aids or abets Texans who seek abortion care not only within the state but outside of it, too. Already, nonprofit groups have sued to try to block the state from taking any action beyond its borders — but the threat spotlights a questionable area of the law.
If a pilot flies from Texas to New Mexico, for example, a Texas resident could try and sue that pilot for helping transport someone to get an abortion. Whether that would hold up in court is not yet clear.
“I would describe it as calculated risk,” says Ziegler. “Pilots have to be willing to take those risks to highlight what they see as injustice. That’s often been the case in the history of abortion law. If people are not willing to take risks, nothing happens.”
An uncertain legal landscape has not dampened enthusiasm among pilots for Mike’s enterprise, even if the idea is nothing short of Orwellian.
Since June, Mike says his organization has received hundreds of inquiries from interested pilots thanks to news stories and a TikTok-savvy pilot who put out a call for volunteers. (Elevated Access thoroughly vets every pilot before bringing them on board.) The donations have poured in, too. While Mike will not share details, he says about half of the donations are small, individual contributions around $50 and the rest come from philanthropists.
In six months, Elevated Access has raised enough money that Mike recently quit his 20-year career at a university to work full-time as the group’s executive director.
While Mike does not reveal how many flights Elevated Access has done so far — “we don’t want to become a target,” he says — it doubled the number of flights in October from the previous month.
To protect both pilots and passengers, Elevated Access keeps passenger information completely anonymous, a model Mike equates to Uber or Lyft. “We don’t ask the purpose of somebody’s flight; we don’t need to know,” says Mike, who explains that the organization can fly patients, physicians, clinic staff or even supplies. “All we’re doing is providing transportation.”
Expensive transportation. The pilots not only volunteer their time but they pick up the cost of flying, which can total hundreds of dollars for a single flight due to $7 gallons of gas. But for the organization’s volunteers, flying for Elevated Access is no routine task. It’s a mission.
A volunteer’s first flight
The pilot who took me on a test flight is a high school physics teacher in Chicago. He was between classes when his cell phone buzzed in late September. On the screen was a text asking if he was available on a forthcoming Tuesday to make a flight from the Midwest to the East Coast.
The pilot, a hobby flier who bought his plane two years ago, said the text gave him a jolt of excitement. He’d been waiting for such a text ever since volunteering with Elevated Access in June.
“It was unmooring to suddenly be in a world where abortion was no longer a constitutional right,” says the pilot. “I read about Elevated Access and thought, this is absolutely what I want to do. It was an opportunity to push back against the political trend of the last six years.”
So, after looking at his schedule, the pilot wrote back enthusiastically: I’m in!
In the week leading up to the October flight, the pilot got to work. He started charting a flight path and looking for airports halfway between his starting location and the final destination where he could refuel. He found one in central New York.
Two days before, the pilot began tracking the weather. The forecast looked clear with winds blowing from west to east, which would give the plane a nice tail wind. He decided to fly below 18,000 feet because higher than that would require the two to use oxygen masks. “I thought that might be strange for my passenger,” he recalls.
In total, the trip took close to five hours, including a brief stop for refueling. The young woman, says the pilot, slept much of the way. When he delivered his passenger to her destination, she gave him a hug and walked away.
Later that day, the pilot got back in his plane and started his journey home. He was due in class the following day.
The ending, he says, felt oddly quiet but “rewarding.”
“It would be a more coherent ending if I knew how her life was affected,” he says. “But I don’t and I won’t, so I embrace that going forward.”
It’s difficult to imagine any coherent ending to a scenario that is elaborate and abrupt, and, for many people, imbued with fear and secrecy.
Just a few minutes past the Wisconsin border, two strips of white buildings appear among a large block of farmland that has turned to a patchy quilt of yellowish brown. The pilot tells me that we will land right between them.
When we touch down, we’ve entered a state where a 173-year-old law bans nearly all abortions and where a felony charge hangs over the heads of physicians who provide them. The airport is small, and the 4,300-foot runaway sits just beyond a smattering of farms, their red barns bright against the muted November palette.
A small, heated welcoming center offers free bottles of water. Everyone is friendly, and no one asks questions.
“There are places like this all over the country,” the pilot says.
The stop is not much longer than an interlude at a gas station along any number of highways. Soon, we’re back up in the air. Up here, among the birds, the law shrinks with the view.
Elly Fishman is a freelance writer and the author of “Refugee High: Coming of Age in America.” Follow her @elly33. Taylor Glascock is a freelance photographer based in Chicago.