Home » ‘Not afraid’: The Texas pilot flying patients to abortions

‘Not afraid’: The Texas pilot flying patients to abortions

by Narges Mohammadi

As abortion becomes less accessible in the US, one pilot is determined to help vulnerable patients despite the risks.

It was summer, midday and hot when the teenager arrived at the tiny regional airport. She was wearing pyjamas and “carrying a stuffed animal for support,” recalls Michelle, who was there to meet her.

The girl was seeking an abortion, and Michelle, a licensed pilot, was about to fly her to another state so she could get one.

Just weeks earlier, on June 24, 2022, the United States Supreme Court had overturned Roe v Wade, the 1973 ruling that enshrined the legal right to abortion, thereby allowing states to enact bans. The girl’s home state had a “trigger law” on the books and had almost immediately banned abortion with very few exceptions. Now she needed to travel hundreds of miles to the nearest clinic offering abortions.

With her older sister, who looked to be in her 20s, she climbed onboard Michelle’s four-seater aeroplane. She had never been on a plane before.

The girl was shy and quiet while her sister asked questions about the plane’s safety procedures, how high they would fly and how long the flight would take.

As they flew over the yellow fields and muscular rivers of the South, Michelle pointed out landmarks to the older sister while the girl slept.

It was Michelle’s first flight with Elevated Access (EA), a nonprofit that organises a network of pilots to discreetly transport patients who otherwise do not have the means to cross state borders for an abortion.

When they landed, Michelle handed the sisters over to another volunteer pilot who would fly them on to their destination. Because patients in states with abortion bans typically have to travel hundreds of miles and small aircraft like Michelle’s fly considerably slower and hold less fuel than commercial planes, multiple volunteer EA pilots often share the job.

“The age is heartbreaking,” Michelle says of her young passenger. She’d nursed some anxiety about the flight beforehand because she felt so much responsibility for her passengers. But once they reached their destination, she says from her home in Texas, “I felt really good. I felt emotional about it.”

‘We’re on a mission’

Michelle, a 61-year-old college lecturer in English literature, has been a licensed pilot for more than 20 years. Her surname is being withheld due to EA policy to protect volunteers and patients as state legislators introduce dozens of laws and restrictions on abortion, sometimes imposing criminal penalties for those who help women and girls obtain the procedure. The week the Supreme Court released its ruling – which has led to abortion being effectively banned in 15 states, primarily in the South, and stricter gestational limits on abortion imposed in other states – Michelle signed up with EA.

When EA had launched just three days before the Supreme Court’s decision was leaked in May 2022, it had envisioned a relatively small operation, helping women and girls who would struggle to reach abortion clinic appointments. Then, when Roe v Wade was overturned, almost overnight, legal abortion clinics shuttered across the country, and the need for EA flights exploded. Michelle didn’t think twice about applying to volunteer. Within two weeks, she had her first mission.

Michelle was initially nervous over the amount of coordination required for that first flight: She was simultaneously texting the sisters, the pilot she’d hand them over to, EA’s coordinator and flight dispatchers.

EA partners with local abortion access organisations, groups that aim to provide financial and logistical support for people seeking abortions. When appropriate, these partner organisations refer patients to EA. Most patients referred to EA have to travel for in-clinic abortions as opposed to medication abortions, where pills are used to induce a miscarriage, and are in difficult and isolating situations.

“We’re not your first option, right?” Fiona, an EA spokesperson, explains over the phone, referring to the people seeking EA’s help. “If you’ve got a supportive spouse or a supportive mother and a car that works and savings, you can probably figure it out” and arrange travel to a state where abortion is legal. But, she says, those without such resources must “rely on the kindness of strangers”, including EA pilots.

Flying in private planes removes other hurdles as well. People without documentation can’t board commercial flights, but they can fly in private planes. Airports are also much more accessible through EA. There are about 10 times as many public airports as commercial airports, and according to Fiona, about 90 percent of Americans live within 20 minutes of one.

Michelle was used to flying friends around for vacations, not transporting vulnerable strangers for urgent, criminalised medical procedures.

“For them [the sisters], it must have been a real whirlwind,” she says. “There’s a lot of trust involved.” Although she’d never met the sisters before and would likely never meet them again, “we’re joined in the weird nexus of the times,” she reflects.

When the flight last summer reached the handover point, the sisters deplaned. The next pilot was also a woman, which is notable, given that fewer than 10 percent of US pilots are women. Fiona estimates that the EA network has more than double the national average for female pilots. Still, most of their volunteers are men, which, she adds, is rare among abortion aid organisations.

Out on the tarmac, Michelle remembers telling the other pilot that she would love to talk about what they are doing, and the pilot in turn telling her, “We’re on a mission. There’s no time for chatting, … but we’ll do it sometime.’” And with that, the other pilot jumped in her plane and took off with the patient and her sister, heading for the next location.

No shrinking violets

Before EA, other than a couple of college protests in the 1980s, Michelle had never been involved in activism. She read the news, voted and had discussions with friends but didn’t engage much beyond that. She’d grown up on her parents’ cattle ranch in Texas, riding horses and helping with chores. By eight, she was driving the tractor. By 10, she was putting down salt blocks for cattle in summer, cracking the frozen watering tubs with a hatchet in winter, and driving the pick-up truck around the ranch with her dad.

“We were farm kids,” she recalls. “Swimming in dirt tubs, catching frogs – it was kind of a feral existence.” Her upbringing made her fiercely independent and resourceful – and did away with any notion of gender roles.

“Most everyone I know who grew up on a farm aren’t shrinking violets,” she continues. “Girls and women [on ranches] are tough. They know how to ride horses. … Growing up on a farm, everybody, boys and girls, were capable and encouraged.” Michelle still possesses the rancher’s pragmatism she grew up with. At home, she’s orderly and self-sufficient. She’s efficient even in speech: brisk with hellos, quick with goodbyes. She speaks with confidence in a dry throaty voice that rarely pauses to hedge, telling rolling stories that bounce along like tumbleweeds.

She first got into flying almost by accident. Her father was a pilot, and she enjoyed skydiving in college. She always “liked the air”. Then, one day, when she was in her 30s, she saw a newspaper advertisement for a “discovery flight”, a quick $40 cruise over her hometown. She enjoyed it so much she went on to get her pilot’s license, and, in her own plane, began flying family members and friends around for fun or business trips.

Longer journeys

As more US states pass abortion restrictions, patients must travel farther to access an abortion.

EA doesn’t disclose details about its missions, but Fiona confirms, “The vast majority of flights involve multiple states, so our pilots are flying hundreds of miles.”

Say, for example, that a woman or girl in Opelousas, a small city in southern Louisiana, needs an in-clinic abortion. The nearest abortion clinic to her is in Carbondale, Illinois. To reach it, she would need to drive more than 1,000 miles (1,600km), about a 23-hour round trip. Alternatively, she’d need to take two buses (about $70) to the nearest airport in Baton Rouge, then fly to the clinic in time for her appointment. (Booking a flight from Baton Rouge to Chicago two weeks in advance currently costs about $500.) People seeking abortions must also consider the cost of the procedure itself, which healthcare plans are not required to cover. (Abortions in the US typically cost $580 to $2,000.)

Source: Aljazeera

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