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'We're not crazy': Listen to a flight report unusual lights near Yellowknife in January

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Air traffic controllers and an approaching flight couldn't identify "two white lights … moving in a circular pattern" that were reported over Yellowknife late at night on Jan. 29.

"Good evening, just wondering, do you got two planes that are just to the east of your field doing circuits or manoeuvres?" a crew member aboard a Canadian North flight from Fort McMurray, Alta., to Yellowknife, N.W.T., asked as it approached the city in northern Canada around 11:15 p.m. local time.

"Negative, I have no reported traffic in the area," an air traffic controller in Yellowknife replied. "Do you have a visual on something?"

"Yeah, we're looking at two lights dancing around here, to the east of your field," the crew of the twin turboprop Canadian North aircraft said. "They're above us, about, I don't know what. We're not seeing them on TCAS (traffic collision avoidance system). But we can see the lights moving around."

"I don't have anything on the radar either. Let me talk to centre," the tower responded, likely referring to what's known as an area control centre.

A moment later, the air traffic controller was back on the radio.

"Hey, centre doesn’t have anything about any movement in the area, so I'm really wondering what you're seeing there," they said.

"Yeah, so are we," the flight answered.

"All right, I'm trying to look," air traffic control said, likely peering out of a tower window. "I don't see them from the ground here. Well, I'll keep an eye out. I'll talk with centre again."

"Yeah, no worries," the crew replied. "They're not a risk to us."

Based in the Ottawa suburb Kanata, Canadian North services multiple destinations across northern Canada. As the flight got closer to Yellowknife, the Canadian North crew described seeing the lights "moving around in a circular pattern" well above them, approximately 20 kilometres northwest of the airport.

"We'll talk on the ground," the air traffic controller said. "I'll file a CIRVIS report – this is when we have some sightings that we cannot explain."

Civilian air traffic control in Canada is operated by the private company Nav Canada. According to Nav Canada aviation guidelines, CIRVIS reports – short for "Communication Instructions for Reporting Vital Intelligence Sightings" – should be made "immediately upon 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." Nav Canada even puts "unidentified flying objects" at the front of a list of "vital intelligence sighting" examples, which also include "submarines, or surface warships identified as being non-Canadian or non-American."

The air traffic controller comes back on the radio again to ask what colour the lights are.

"White," is the reply.

"Roger, thanks."

There's then a pause before the crew member comes back on the radio to say, "We're not crazy."

"No, we believe you."

The incident was first reported by Yellowknife-based Cabin Radio. The extended audio was taken from LiveATC.net, a website that streams air traffic control radio.

The incident also appears in a pair of reports published on Transport Canada's online aviation incident database on Feb. 10 and Feb. 14, with data provided by Nav Canada. Transport Canada is the federal government's transportation department.

Covering everything from bird strikes to unruly passengers, Transport Canada's database is also peppered with nearly three decades of strange sightings from police officers, soldiersair traffic controllers and pilots on medical, militarycargo and passenger flights operated by WestJetAir Canada ExpressPorter AirlinesDelta and more. In 2022 alone, CTVNews.ca discovered 11 reports like these from pilots flying for airlines such as Air Canada, WestJet, Virgin Atlantic, United and KLM. One of the most recent comes from Feb. 7, 2023, when a cargo flight from Miami to Amsterdam "observed unusual lights, moving erratically 40,000 feet to 50,000 feet" while flying near Nova Scotia.

Transport Canada cautions that these "reports contain preliminary, unconfirmed data which can be subject to change." A spokesperson from Transport Canada previously told CTVNews.ca that CIRVIS reports "have no potential for regulatory enforcement and often fall outside the department’s mandate."

"Reports of unidentified objects can rarely be followed up on as they are as the title implies, unidentified," they said.

CIRVIS procedures also see notifications go to a Norad-linked Royal Canadian Air Force squadron. While it is not known if there was a response in this case, the Canadian military routinely states that it does "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." Before the downing of the three unidentified objects earlier this month, at least four cases appear to have met that criteria since 2016.

In the U.S., both the Pentagon and NASA are currently studying what they call UAP, short for unidentified aerial (or anomalous) phenomena, a term that is replacing UFO and "unidentified flying object" in official circles.

WHAT WERE THEY SEEING? EXPERTS WEIGH IN

Transport Canada did not immediately reply to a request for comment prior to publication on Feb. 16.

"The event is classified as Weather balloon, meteor, rocket, CIRVIS/UFO," a Transport Canada spokesperson said in a Feb. 21 email. "Transport Canada endeavors to ensure the accuracy and integrity of the data contained within [its aviation incident database], however, the information within should be treated as preliminary, unsubstantiated and subject to change."

In a statement to CTVNews.ca, a Nav Canada spokesperson confirmed its reporting procedures.

"We do not as a practice share or validate recordings of [air traffic control] audio except with authorities in the context of an investigation or safety review," the spokesperson said on Thursday.

A spokesperson for Canadian North could offer no explanation for what the crew witnessed.

"With nothing in the report, which would represent a risk or threat to our aircraft, passengers or operations, there was nothing requiring follow up," the airline spokesperson told CTVNews.ca on Friday. "From the audio, anything that was observed was not on the aircraft’s flight path."

Canada's Department of National Defence did not reply to a request for comment.

Iain Boyd is a professor of aerospace engineering and director of the Center for National Security Initiatives at the University of Colorado.

"I think the colour and circular patterns are the most unusual aspects of this particular incident. But in the end, it was most likely someone just behaving badly with a fancy laser setup," Boyd told CTVNews.ca. "I think it was handled appropriately. The air traffic folks asked good questions to try and understand what the pilot was seeing. They shared information such as they were not seeing anything on radar.They informed the pilot that air traffic planned to submit a CIRVIS. This was good, effective two-way communication."

Robert Powell is a Texas-based engineer and founding board member of the Scientific Coalition for UAP Studies, an international thinktank dedicated to applying scientific principals to UAP research. He says in this case, there's just not enough information to draw a conclusion.

"I don't think anything was done that would have allowed an identification of the object," Powell told CTVNews.ca. "There should be a designated group that investigates CIRVIS reports. I suspect that they are simply filed away. There was nothing in the report that made me suspect laser interference."

Correction

This Feb. 16 story has been updated with a Feb. 21 statement from Transport Canada.

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