Named among the Sunshine coast Daily top 65 Sunshine Coast Successful Young Achievers in 2018
Voted the Best Wedding Photographer on the Sunshine Coast 2019
Life After Near Death - The Sunshine Coast Daily's Exposé of Ben Connolly
As he hurtled toward the earth at 250km/h, Sunshine Coast Wedding Photographer Ben Connolly’s thoughts were, ‘‘how are the people that love me going to take this?’’.
The sheer force of the impact of his body hitting the ground was so intense that the grass had died and there was an inch-deep depression at the impact site over a week later.
The Dicky Beach resident is now a renowned Sunshine Coast Wedding Photographer, winning more than 50 national and international awards in the last 4 years.
But in 2002 a skydiving accident at Currimundi nearly killed him, after he jumped from the plane too far from the landing site and had to crash-land in suburbia near Nicklin Way.
Ben, a former Navy engineer was in the military from age 16, and became a skydiving photographer & instructor more than 20 years ago.
His helmet had a video camera mounted on the side and he would use his tongue to control the shutter of a still camera mounted on top.
“I used to jump out with the tandem, and…Id’e shoot a whole roll of film that they could go and develop after the jump.”
It didn’t seem a high-risk, or even “bizarre” job in the moment but he found it more exciting and fun than military work and in 2000 left his defence force career to pursue it.
Ben moved to the Sunshine Coast and worked full-time with a company f known as Caloundra City Skydivers, but on May 26 2002 an accident changed the course of his life forever.
“When we jumped out of the aircraft in the beginning I could tell that we were too far away,”
“I’d done nearly 3000 jumps at that point, and there was a level of anxiety that was present when we jumped out that wasn’t really there in my previous jumps.”
Both he and the tandem skydiver deployed their parachutes early, “to give us options I guess, because I think we both knew that we weren’t getting back”.
The video camera mounted on his helmet recorded the entire jump and the shattering impact of his crash-landing.
He was flying under an “extremely fast” parachute that was catapulting him and his heavy equipment toward the earth at more than 100km per hour.
“Parachutes are like cars…you can get ones that go really slow like an old Datsun or you can get the fast ones, like a Ferrari. I was flying a Ferrari.
Strong winds were stopping his progress, and he decided about 200m west of Nicklin Way to change course and aim for a local school, near Currimundi shops.
“When I turned back I realised I wasn’t going to make the school,” he said.
“It left me in limbo - either I was going to land in Nicklin Way or I was going to end up in the creek, in Currimundi Lake.” He located a retirement village with about 100m of grass.
“I set myself up to land there. As I turned in over the trees and powerlines to a point where I was comfortable to just glide in, I got a big push of wind behind me that meant I was either going to hit the bridge or go into Currimundi Lake,” he said.
Landing in the lake wasn’t really an option in the moment as his parachute was made of a zero porosity fabric and would likely have drowned him.
“I also had $15,000 of equipment on me that would have been destroyed if it got wet. “In hindsight I should probably have gone for the lake”.
He made a split-second decision to turn the parachute 180 degrees and do a hook turn, a dangerous move because the parachute turns and dives at the same time while also dramatically increasing its speed in the turn.
“Low hook turns are one of the main things that kill skydivers, if they’re done too close to the ground,” Ben explained.
“If you misjudge a hook turn to low, it’ll kill you. So I did a hook turn and I literally misjudged it by about a foot.”
“Had I made that turn about a foot higher, I wouldn’t have hit the ground,” he said.
“I would have had to probably bend my legs, maybe scrape my knees, and run like crazy.” If he had made the turn just one foot lower, he’d be dead.
About halfway through the manoeuvre he realised it wasn’t going to end the way he wanted it to.
“People say their life flashes before their eyes in that moment…but it wasn’t like that for me,” Ben said.
“I realised I wasn’t going to make it, and the first thought before hitting the ground was, how are the people that love me going to take this, I thought that I was actually going to die like so many others over the years.”
The whole event felt like slow motion but was happening at over 100km/h, he said.
As he hit the ground at over 100km/h he heard his right femur snap, although not knowing what the loud crack actually was at the time.
“I remember hitting the ground and feeling this intense shock just shoot all the way up through my leg right up to my head,” he said.
His memory of the rest of the incident is foggy, but from the video footage he looked at some weeks later it was plain to see that he had hit hard and had bounced in the air.
“I left a divet in the ground that was about an inch and a half deep when I hit the ground.”
“After the movement had stopped, I was lying there, I had a mouth full of blood, I couldn’t breathe properly and I couldn’t feel my legs very much,” he said.
“I couldn’t feel any pain but I knew that something was extremely wrong. I had bitten through my tongue, the end of it was still there was there, but it was half bitten off.”
Adrenalin, cortisol and shock had masked the pain, he said, and he was able to carefully remove his helmet and clear an airway so he could breathe still unsure if doing so would break his neck and still unsure of the extent of his injuries.
“The military training came flooding back to me, I knew I had to roll over, and I had to clear an airway, and I had to make sure that if I did pass out I wasn’t going to choke on the blood in my mouth,” he said.
A woman who had been at McDonald’s and saw his parachute coming down yelled to him as she ran to his aid, asking if he needed an ambulance.
“All I could do was wave my arm at her,” he said.
Some residents from the retirement village came out and put a blanket over him and waited for the ambulance.
It was an horrific experience and the trauma has stayed with him, he said.
“When you‘re in a situation where you’re flying a parachute that can potentially drive you into the ground at 150km an hour, and you’ve got nowhere that’s an open enough area to land something like that … then there’s a whole lot of stress and a whole lot of mental challenges that go along with that.”
He had five surgeries, and while physical rehabilitation was tough, the mental journey was gruelling.
“I went downhill in a big way,” Ben said.
“I’d lost my mobility, I’d lost my ability to skydive and create, and I was uncertain about how to pay bills and where I was going to go from here.
“There was a period of pretty severe depression for about a year or two and I ended up living with some friends from the military, I lived in one of the back rooms of their house where I became a bit of a hermit I went from 85 to 110 kilos.”
With each operation on his body he was immobilised again for at least three months.
“I got to a point where I wasn’t willing to accept the depression and anxiety I was living with anymore and something had to be done, otherwise I could have easily just jumped in front of a bus.”
But he got up one morning and made a decision that would again alter the course of his life.
“This wasn’t going to define my life,” he said. “It wasn’t going to define who I was, and who I am now.
“I made the decision to… put this accident down to growth, as painful as it was. “I’m going to put it down to learning and being given a second opportunity to change the world.”
He wanted to respect what life had dealt him and not squander his opportunity to really live.
“I got into filming weddings, and that fed the creativity, and in 2011 I turned my hand to photography as it had been calling me for years,” he said.
“That was really, really successful and I learned quite quickly that I was pretty good at it.
“All the awards Iv’e won and the experiences Iv’e lived have fed into the ability to now help other people and allow my experience be part of my life but not what defines it.”
The past four years have been his most successful, with his visual art reaching a global audience.
“The reason why I do it, is because every day I get the opportunity to be creative and bring other peoples’ visions to life,” Ben said.
“I’m very honoured to be the most awarded wedding photographer in the region, named among the top 65 Young & Successful Sunshine Coast Entrepreneurs, the best Sunshine Coast Wedding Photographer as voted by my past couples on the Sunshine Coast Daily’s website and have taken out over 50 national and international awards in the last four years,” he said.
“My goal is to keep doing amazing photos all over the world while also building my global profile from right here on the Coast.”
In January Ben plans to launch a business coaching and mentoring company, adding to his flourishing contribution to the Coast and wider community.
Where do you find the right words for someone who just made your wedding day even that much more special then you could have imagined. Ben you are incredible!!
I must have met with a dozen photographers, and whilst there work was nice, they most definitely didn’t have the personality and creativity of Ben. Immediately after being welcomed into Ben’s gorgeous little studio I felt so comfortable, so confident and unbelievably pleased to have found him. My now husband and I just looked at one another and knew the decision was made, Ben was so easy to work with, the communication leading up to the wedding was better than all of our suppliers put together...and that’s saying a lot!
He put my mind at ease regarding my requests, and took on my ideas. Without Ben it just wouldn’t have been the same.
While Ben meant business and was 100% committed to getting the perfect shot, the banter, jokes and just down to earth personality had everyone laughing. The whole wedding party sang his praise, and we are still in ore of what he made happen. Every photo captures every second of the day and night, each tear, each laugh and every dance captured beautifully.
When I look back through our photos I can relive the day with no gaps and its wonderful.
Your work is beyond stunning and every photo is perfect and I would recommend you 1 million times over.
From the bottom of my heart thank you Ben.