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Nonprofit providing air travel for abortions finds gap in Wyoming

Elevated Access has more than 1,000 volunteer pilots spanning the country, but none in the Equality State.

(Adam Fagen/Flickr)

Madelyn Beck, WyoFile

Adrian’s mother was raped at 13 and became pregnant with him and his twin brother. Without access to abortion, he said, she gave birth at 14.

“When she gave birth, she wasn’t even in the statistics of teenage pregnancy, because she was under the [age] threshold that they used for counting,” he said. 

Adrian is only sharing his first name to shield his family. He’s a military veteran and a pilot. 

His childhood was hard, as he dealt with things like food scarcity and others’ addictions. He wants people to have an abortion option so they aren’t forced into parenthood, he said.

“I grew up in an environment which reproductive health care would have prevented. And no, I’m not saying ‘Oh, I wish I was dead,’” he said. “What I’m trying to say is, it doesn’t matter if I’m happy with my life or not, my mom should have been given the option.”

That’s one reason the Wisconsin-based pilot decided to help out a new nonprofit Elevated Access, which links volunteer pilots with people seeking abortions, as well as gender-affirming care

“I was astonished when I went through the pilot list … It’d have Wisconsin and Washington. And I’m like wait, wait, where’s Wyoming?” FIONA DELTA, ELEVATED ACCESS VOLUNTEER

Elevated Access formed in April 2022, according to the nonprofit’s “Director of Kindness” Fiona Delta.

Delta is not her real last name. 

“All of us use aliases. So our last names are aviation puns,” she said. 

She noted some of the dangers for those helping provide abortions in the U.S. An arsonist set fire to an abortion clinic in Casper in May, and many religious organizations view abortion as murder. 

Delta said her nonprofit’s founder was having trouble getting volunteers early on, and the organization sought out Adrian to help spread the word because of his successful TikTok account, cheesepilot

Adrian made a video for Elevated Access at 4 a.m. while on “ready reserve” for an airline, he said, waiting at the airport in case a pilot calls in sick. 

Thousands of people watched the video, and “by the end of the day, there were people hounding me going, ‘Where do I donate?’” 

The video resulted in a slew of donations as well as dozens of volunteer pilots signing up. 

Nearly a year after its creation, Elevated Access now has more than 1,000 volunteer pilots. Neither TikTok nor Elevated Access’ media attention has attracted any volunteer pilots from Wyoming, though. 

“I was astonished when I went through the pilot list,” Delta said. “It’d have Wisconsin and Washington. And I’m like, wait, wait, where’s Wyoming?”

Delta said it’s the only state in the continental U.S. where no one has volunteered.

Why not Wyoming?

Volunteering for Elevated Access isn’t necessarily cheap, according to Adrian — who bought a plane to start flying for the organization after lending his help on TikTok. 

“We’re not charging people,” he said. “A lot of the pilots that are volunteering to do these missions, it’s out of their own pocket for gas, for airplane maintenance, for tie-down fees, for parking fees.”

Including maintenance costs, Adrian said it costs an average of $180 an hour to fly his private plane. While there are some avenues to get federal reimbursement for working with a nonprofit, he says they can be hard to qualify for. 

It’s also possible Wyoming pilots might not know about Elevated Access, Adrian said, noting that TikTok is relatively new. 

“It may just be lack of access to internet that’s preventing us from getting to the pilots in Wyoming,” he said. 

Another potential reason is that abortion is still technically legal in Wyoming, according to Christine Lichtenfels, who works with abortion access organization Chelsea’s Fund.  

Lichtenfels also suggested that Wyoming residents are accustomed to traveling by car, and currently have neighbors like Montana and Colorado where abortion is accessible.

“Wyomingites drive a lot,” she said.

Chelsea’s Fund is willing to partner with organizations like Elevated Access, Lichtenfels said. 

While most abortions are still legal in Wyoming, a 2022 law banning them is currently tangled up in court. Lawmakers have also proposed bills at the Legislature to restrict abortion access, including one to ban using medications to induce abortion — which passed 4-1 out of committee — and another that would ban the procedure without exemptions for rape or incest. 

For legal reasons, Delta said, the people Elevated Access transports don’t share their names. Volunteer pilots aren’t told who they’re flying or why they’re flying that person.

Even with the possible legal ramifications, like charges for aiding and abetting abortions, Delta says many of the pilots lean into the freedom that comes with flying planes in the U.S.

“We’ve always had a bit of a cowboy culture when it comes to aviation,” she said, noting that more than 90% of licensed pilots are men. 

“Our pilots can get up in the air anytime they want [relatively],” Delta said. “In other countries, that’s not the case. And so it’s much more regulated and people know where you’re going, why you’re going. They’re in your business. Whereas here, they have incredible freedom.”

There are Wyoming pilots who volunteer for other organizations, like Dog is My CoPilot, which transports “at-risk” animals from overcrowded shelters to adoption facilities where people will adopt them. 

Adrian said that’s typical: many pilots will volunteer for several organizations, hoping to help wherever they can.

“They’re not just volunteering for Elevated Access, they’re already amazing people,” he said. 

The issue of abortion is divisive in Wyoming. A recent University of Wyoming survey found about 36% of respondents felt abortion should be a personal choice and 36% accept abortion in cases of rape, incest or risk to a mother’s life. Another 19% “favor abortion if other reasons are clearly established,” while 7% prefer a total abortion ban. 

For those looking to contact Elevated Access for transportation, Delta said the nonprofit operates through partner organizations like Planned Parenthood and other clinics, which then refer people to the nonprofit.