From "unidentified" objects to a "strange light," Canadian aviation officials received at least 16 unusual reports in 2022, including 11 from pilots flying for Air Canada, WestJet, Virgin Atlantic, United and more.
While they rarely feature more than a line or two of detail, the reports describe incidents from coast to coast, as well as one from near New York City's LaGuardia airport, when a Sept. 17 Air Canada flight from Toronto "reported passing an unidentified object approximately 10 feet above the Captain's window" while making a left-hand bank at 1,300 feet, about an hour before sunset.
The reports appear in an online aviation incident database maintained by Transport Canada, the federal government's transportation department. The public database documents everything from bird strikes to unruly passengers, and also includes nearly three decades of strange sightings from police officers, soldiers, air traffic controllers and pilots on medical, military, cargo and passenger flights operated by WestJet, Air Canada Express, Porter Airlines, Delta and more.
Transport Canada cautions such "reports contain preliminary, unconfirmed data which can be subject to change."
Donald "Spike" Kavalench is a recently retired Transport Canada surveillance pilot who also spent more than two decades flying for the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF).
"I wouldn't write any of those off as insignificant," Kavalench said of the aviation incidents identified for this story. "These reports must be taken seriously and the fact that we have no real follow up on any of these incidents speaks volumes to the inadequacy of our airspace security."
'VITAL INTELLIGENCE SIGHTINGS'
Reports from 2022 include a Nov. 12 cargo flight from Chicago to Frankfurt that "reported seeing lights that were moving eastward at the same speed as the aircraft" while flying in the dark over northeastern Ontario.
During daylight hours on May 28, local police were notified after multiple "reports were received by local traffic of an unidentified object, possibly a balloon or a radio-controlled (RC) plane, at 3000ft and 7NM [13 kilometres] south of Kitchener/Waterloo, ON."
The Kitchener-Waterloo area was also the site of a Sept. 22 daytime report from a flying club pilot of "a red and white unidentified object" at 2,500 feet.
Transport Canada's aviation incident database, where these reports are found, is called CADORS, short for the Civil Aviation Daily Occurrence Reporting System. In CADORS, most reports of unusual objects or lights are categorized as "Weather balloon, meteor, rocket, CIRVIS/UFO" cases, which is also meant to capture helium balloons and fireworks. UFO of course stands for "unidentified flying object" – a term that is now being replaced in official circles by "UAP," short for unidentified aerial (or anomalous) phenomena. CIRVIS stands for "Communication Instructions for Reporting Vital Intelligence Sightings."
According to guidelines from Nav Canada, the private air traffic control company that provides most of these reports to the government, pilots over Canada should make CIRVIS reports "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."
Other unidentified objects in CADORS may be easier to explain, like a daytime June 8 report from over Lake Superior in Ontario, when an Air Canada flight from Calgary to Montreal "reported a green flash descending through their altitude" of 41,000 feet.
"The pilot suspected it might be a meteorite," the CADORS report continues. "The controller questioned if it may have been lightning or St. Elmo's fire. The pilot responded in the negative."
While laser strikes are an unfortunately common and dangerous occurrence for pilots, between October and December, at least six reports of unidentified lights have been classified as "laser interference" cases in the government's aviation incident database.
The first, a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flight from Mexico City to Amsterdam, "reported a bright light above at their 12 O'clock" while flying at night off the southern coast of Nova Scotia on Oct. 3.
Travelling to St. John's in the dark on Nov. 16, an Air Canada flight from Toronto "reported a strange light" a little over 100 kilometres west of its destination. Then on Nov. 24 in the same region, a United Airlines flight from Washington, D.C., to Zurich, Switzerland, reported "white lights moving left and right, up and down."
Over northwestern Quebec on Dec. 8, a Virgin Atlantic flight from Las Vegas to London "reported seeing two lights, at one o'clock, moving quickly to the left" while travelling at 39,000 feet. After a few minutes, "the same thing happened again."
The following night over northwestern Ontario, a private jet travelling from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., to Winnipeg "reported seeing 1-3 bright lights orbiting above the horizon, lasting for about 10 seconds, every 60 seconds." A nearby WestJet flight from Halifax to Calgary "also observed the same lights." Air traffic controllers then notified Canadian air force officials with NORAD, short for North American Aerospace Defense Command, the joint Canada-U.S. defence group.
Within hours of this story being published, Transport Canada released another "laser interference" report on the night of Dec. 30. The Dec. 15 nighttime incident involved a KLM flight from Amsterdam to Edmonton and an Air Canada flight from London to Vancouver that both "reported unknown lights ahead at a very high altitude" flying over the ocean near Nunavut.
According to the CADORS report, the "lights were described as pinpoints, and were observed at least 20 times over a 1 hour period, at between 10 and 40 degrees above the horizon. They were estimated at above [50,000 feet] and moved in different directions."
"There’s a place for laser interference but it specifically refers to and should only be used with reports of lasers aimed at aircraft," Kavalench, the retired Transport Canada and RCAF pilot, told CTVNews.ca from B.C. "A light in the sky above an airliner, for example, does not meet the criteria. Nor does a light in the sky keeping up to an airliner. If they are calling those laser interference, I think it’s wrong."
According to a Transport Canada spokesperson, aviation reports are labelled "laser interreference" when "an aircraft is targeted or reported seeing a laser beam or any other directed bright light source."
"In the examples cited," the spokesperson explained, "there is a reference to light(s) or bright light(s) which better fits the event definition for laser interference."
In addition to these six "laser interference" cases, CTVNews.ca also found 10 other aviation reports from 2022 describing "possible" drones, as well as another two describing "a drone or balloon."
CIVILIAN (AND UNCERTAIN) REPORTS
CTVNews.ca located an additional five reports in CADORS from civilian or uncertain sources. Some, like a daylight July 3 civilian sighting in Quebec, provide zero details. Others only offer a few, like a March 27 report from near Vancouver Island of a "bright phenomenon in the sky" that was even relayed to military officials with NORAD.
Others may have straightforward explanations, like a "report of 12 fast moving objects flying above Gabriola Island" in B.C. that was relayed to air traffic controllers by the RCMP on March 7—possibly a sighting of SpaceX Starlink satellites, which travel in glowing lines. An Aug. 19 report from outside Trois-Rivières, Que., perhaps describes another Starlink sighting, when a "series of 17 orange circular objects at an altitude of approximately 6,000 to 10,000 ft" were observed that were "equidistant" and the "size of a jet."
Another, from Nov. 20 in New Brunswick, describes "object with a beam of light was seen moving from South to North, heading towards Fredericton, NB (CYFC), then breaking up into four objects with similar beams of light" – possibly a bright fireball or meteor disintegrating in the atmosphere.
UNIDENTIFIED ANOMALOUS PHENOMENA
In the U.S., both the Pentagon and NASA are currently studying what they refer to as UAP: unidentified anomalous (or aerial) phenomena.
"We apply the highest analytic and scientific standards," Sean M. Kirkpatrick, the Pentagon program's current director, said during a Dec. 16 media roundtable. "We execute our mission objectively and without sensationalism and we do not rush to conclusions."
A public American intelligence report from June 2021 outlined recent U.S. military sightings, including objects that “appeared to remain stationary in winds aloft, move against the wind, maneuver abruptly, or move at considerable speed, without discernable means of propulsion.”
CTVNews.ca previously revealed how former Canadian defence minister Harjit Sajjan received a UAP briefing from Canadian military officials in May 2021, which was followed by briefing to Canadian military officials from the Pentagon's UAP task force on Feb. 22. Transport Minister Omar Alghabra's staff also held their own internal UAP briefing on May 11.
The Pentagon and NASA have separately stated that there is no evidence to indicate that UAP represent something otherworldly. From drones to lasers, balloons, satellites, floating paper lanterns and advanced military technology, of course all of the reports in this article could have earthly explanations – but most remain unidentified. Despite recent developments south of the border, when it comes to so-called UAP reports, in Canada there is still little to no official follow-up.
"Reports received by Transport Canada are assessed for any immediate risk to aviation safety and security or to the Canadian public," 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."
Both Transport Canada and Canada's Department of National Defence were unable to provide additional details on the reports mentioned in this story. 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." Since 2016, at least four incidents appear to have met that criteria.
To Kavalench, the former government and military aviator, reports of unidentified objects and lights from fellow pilots should be considered "very credible."
"Who is following up to see if any of the observers collected photographic or video evidence? Who is correlating this information to see if there is a pattern or area of higher risk? I suspect the answer to both questions is absolutely no one," Kavalench said. "I think the ministers of transport and defence should stand up a joint office to follow up on these very real airspace incursions."
CTVNews.ca was able to obtain additional documents for five of the cases mentioned in this story. These include four aviation occurrence reports (AOR) from Nav Canada air traffic controllers, which were acquired through separate access to information requests filed with Transport Canada. The fifth report was provided directly by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB). CTVNews.ca has redacted some contact information in black.