Dan Hemenway
Madison Tower


Hemenway was in the midst of a routine Thursday afternoon in the radar room at Madison Tower, handling the usual assortment of aircraft and building up a nice, smooth rhythm, even tapping out a few beats with his fingers on the console between radio transmissions. But as every controller knows, an emergency situation is as close as the next voice you hear on the frequency.

For Hemenway, on this day, it was a female pilot’s voice aboard a single engine Cirrus SR22 – call sign N678DF – headed north to Madison from Rockford, Ill.

“Eight Delta Foxtrot, room for you at four thousand also,” Hemenway told the pilot as he worked the aircraft into an altitude that was filling up before setting it up for an approach.

But Hemenway had a comfortable load of other traffic to handle as well. “Jet Blue 2898, contact Chicago Center 133.3 … Navajo four-three Mike fly heading one-one-zero … Northwest one-eight-six, contact Milwaukee Approach 126.5.  … Good day.”

Then the Cirrus received attention again.

“Cirrus eight Delta Foxtrot, turning left heading three-one zero. … Cirrus eight Delta Foxtrot, descend and maintain two thousand, seven hundred. … Cirrus eight Delta Foxtrot, turn left heading two-eight zero. 

Hemenway issued two instructions for left turns before clearing the aircraft for an instrument landing system approach into Runway 18. Everything appeared to be normal. Hemenway asked the pilot for another left turn, maintaining an altitude of 2,700 feet.

There was silence on the frequency. After a short period of time, Hemenway heard several short, strained breaths. It sounded like someone holding a microphone into the air on a windy day.

“Cirrus eight Delta Foxtrot, low altitude alert,” Hemenway told the pilot in a calm, clear voice. “Check your altitude immediately. You’re supposed to be at 2,700.”

Hemenway: “Eight Delta Fox, say your altitude?”

The pilot sounded worried. “Eight Delta Fox, going through one thousand.”

On his radar scope, Hemenway saw the altitude of the aircraft display “xxx” because it was in such a steep descent. His voice suddenly became stern and louder.

“Eight Delta Foxtrot, climb!”

Pilot: “It went nuts.”

Hemenway: “Two thousand seven hundred, eight Delta Foxtrot. Say your altitude now?” The pilot, sounding relieved, responded, “Two thousand five hundred.”

She then reported to Hemenway that she had stabilized the aircraft. Disaster was averted, but not before the aircraft got within 100 feet of the ground in instrument flight rules conditions that included 200-foot ceilings and 1.5 miles visibility at the airport.

The pilot stated that she had disengaged the autopilot and the plane “just went nuts.” She said she wanted to return to Rockford so Hemenway got her on her way, climbing her to 7,000 feet. By this time, his calm voice and soothing rhythm had returned.

Madison controller Kristin Danninger said she nominated Hemenway for the award because he issued the climb warning in clear terms in time to ensure a safe outcome for the aircraft.

“There are many times we as controllers stop to evaluate the conditions, the alarms and a number of other factors before we speak,” Danninger said. “In this case, Dan had no time to evaluate whether the low altitude alert was simply the display showing an erroneous altitude or whether it was legitimate. He was decisive and reacted in a way that caused the pilot to immediately start a climb to a safe altitude.”

Concluded Danninger: “I personally believe that Dan saved at least one life that day with his quick reaction.” 

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