Early on Feb. 12, 2023, at least three different flights over Quebec reported “seeing very strange lights in the sky, high above the flight paths” that were “moving in a rapid and irregular way.”
“It looks like it’s more than one and sort of circling,” a crew member aboard a cargo flight from Chicago to Luxembourg told air traffic controllers in Canada, according to audio obtained by CTVNews.ca. “It’s a bit weird.”
CTVNews.ca has identified at least 17 reports like these from 2023 in an online aviation incident database maintained by Transport Canada, the federal transportation department. Those reports come from across the country and involve pilots and crew with WestJet, Air France, British Airways and more. You can read all of the reports in an exclusive interactive map.
“Just to let you know there was a flight from the south… they saw the same thing roughly a half-an-hour ago,” an air traffic controller told the Luxembourg-bound cargo flight on Feb. 12.
“So I guess we’re not just dreaming then, huh?” the aviator said.
“No, you’re not the first one tonight.”
Roughly 24 hours later, air traffic controllers received another report, this time from an Edmonton to Yellowknife flight operated by Air Tindi that “reported observing a rotating light” at 30,000 feet over northern Alberta.
When something similar was spotted near Yellowknife late on Jan. 29, air traffic controllers sent a “vital intelligence sighting” report to Norad, the joint Canada-U.S. air defence group.
“We’re looking at two lights dancing around here, to the east of your field,” a crew member aboard a Canadian North flight from Fort McMurray said as they approached Yellowknife on Jan. 29, according to air traffic control audio previously published by CTVNews.ca. “We’re not crazy.”
Increasingly referred to as “unidentified anomalous phenomena,” or UAP for short, UFOs and unidentified flying objects have become the focus of U.S. congressional hearings and official reports from both NASA and the Pentagon. In Canada, the federal government’s top scientific advisor has also launched the Sky Canada Project, which plans to release a public UAP report in 2024.
Transport Canada’s aviation incident database contains reports on everything from bird strikes to unruly passengers. Known as CADORS, it is also peppered with nearly three decades of strange sightings from civilians, soldiers, police officers, air traffic controllers and pilots on medical, military, cargo and passenger flights.
The most recent 2023 reports come from within an hour of each other, when an Atlas Air flight from Chicago to Frankfurt and a Air France flight from Los Angeles to Paris separately reported “an unidentified object” and “an object ahead and above with 6-7 lights” near Toronto early on Dec. 3.
Transport Canada routinely cautions that such “reports contain preliminary, unconfirmed data which can be subject to change.”
“These reports have no potential for regulatory enforcement and often fall outside the department’s mandate,” a Transport Canada spokesperson previously told CTVNews.ca. “Reports of unidentified objects can rarely be followed up on as they are as the title implies, unidentified.”
‘A small fraction of what pilots are seeing’
Robert Powell is a Texas-based engineer and founding board member of the Scientific Coalition for UAP Studies, an international think-tank dedicated to applying scientific principles to UAP research.
“I suspect that these reports represent a small fraction of what pilots are seeing,” Powell told CTVNews.ca. “Not only does the stigma of making a UAP report still exist, but the reporting form and the way it is handled would make it clear to any pilot that his report was simply filed away.”
Most reports are provided to federal transportation officials by Nav Canada, a private non-profit company that owns and operates Canada’s civilian air traffic control infrastructure.
The company’s aviation guidelines direct pilots over Canada to immediately report “a vital intelligence sighting of any airborne and ground objects or activities that appear to be hostile, suspicious, unidentified or engaged in possible illegal smuggling activity.” Known as “Communication Instructions for Reporting Vital Intelligence Sightings” or CIRVIS reports, Nav Canada even puts “unidentified flying objects” at the front of a list of examples that also includes foreign submarines and warships. When such reports are made, Nav Canada typically alerts Transport Canada and a Norad-affiliated Royal Canadian Air Force squadron in North Bay, Ont.
“Nav Canada’s Aviation Occurrence Reporting Procedure is used to address instances of unauthorized or unknown aircraft in NAV CANADA managed airspace,” a company spokesperson told CTVNews.ca. “Nav Canada provides all information that it receives on these incidents to the Canadian government.”
But unless there is a clear safety or security concern, there tends to be little to no follow-up from Canadian authorities.
“The Canadian Armed Forces and the Royal Canadian Air Force do not typically investigate sightings of unknown or unexplained phenomena outside the context of investigating credible threats, potential threats, or potential distress in the case of search and rescue,” a Canadian defence spokesperson previously told CTVNews.ca.
At least four incidents appear to have met that criteria between 2016 and Feb. 2023, when a high-altitude Chinese balloon and three unidentified objects were shot down over North America.
A Jan. 31 Air Canada sighting of the balloon over B.C. also appeared in Transport Canada’s digital database.
From ‘unusual lights, moving erratically’ to ‘an intense light seeming to come from the sun’
Some of the Canadian UAP cases from 2023 may have straightforward explanations, like a Jan. 6 Swoop fight from Abbotsford, B.C. that “reported seeing a dozen or so white lights” near Hamilton, Ont., and a Feb. 17 report from a remote Northwest Territories airport of “a string of lights about a mile long” – both possibly sightings of SpaceX Starlink satellites, which travel in lines of glowing dots. Other incidents involving flashing red and green lights could be drones with navigation lights, like reports filed in February and March.
More than half of the unusual reports filed in 2023 were classified as “laser interference” incidents, while the rest were labelled as “CIRVIS/UFO” reports.
Examples of “laser interference” from 2023 include a Jan. 4 Aeromexico flight from Mexico City to Amsterdam that reported “an unusual light pattern in the sky” above New Brunswick; a Feb. 7 cargo flight from Miami to Amsterdam that “observed unusual lights, moving erratically” above them near Halifax; a Sept. 27 British Airways flight from Houston to London that reported a flying “light above their flight level” off the coast of Nova Scotia; and an Oct. 24 WestJet flight from Edmonton to Halifax that reported “an intense light seeming to come from the sun” over Quebec.
A Transport Canada spokesperson previously explained that aviation reports are labelled “laser interference” when “an aircraft is targeted or reported seeing a laser beam or any other directed bright light source.”
Powell, the UAP researcher, believes the “laser” label is being misapplied.
“The ‘laser interference’ explanation appears to be a catch-all category for pilot reports,” Powell said. “Laser light sources would be below the aircraft and not above it.”
CTVNews.ca has filed freedom of information requests to get more data on reports like these, which rarely feature more than a line or two of detail. For example, a publicly-available Jan. 11, 2023 report from an Exploits Valley Air Services flight over the Gulf of Saint Lawrence simply describes “bright lights approximately 100 [nautical miles] from their position.” An access to information request filed with Canada’s Department of National Defence revealed a slightly longer report of “approx 4 bright lights moving around each other creating geometric shapes (triangle to hexagon).”
At least four flights have already reported unidentified objects and lights over Canada so far in 2024, including a Jan. 4 sighting from Porter Airlines, a Jan. 13 case involving a FedEx flight, and a Jan. 19 report from Flair Airlines and Air Canada. CTVNews.ca also previously documented 11 similar aviation cases from 2022.
From drones to balloons, satellites, meteorites, flares, paper lanterns and weather phenomena, many of the reports described in this article likely have ordinary and earthly explanations. But with little sign of official investigation or follow-up from Canadian officials, most cases remain unexplained.
Donald “Spike” Kavalench is a retired Transport Canada surveillance pilot who also spent more than two decades flying for the Royal Canadian Air Force.
“Transport Canada, Nav Canada and the Department of National Defence need to work together to quickly and effectively respond to and investigate any UAP reports that could signify a potential threat to the flying public and potentially our national security,” Kavalench told CTVNews.ca. “So far, that has not been done.”
Do you have an unusual document or observation to share? Email CTVNews.ca Writer Daniel Otis at [email protected].