by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — “Top Gun” seized the adolescent imaginations of a whole generation of boys with its screaming F-14A Tomcat fighter planes and their aerial dance of death over the seething sea.
As did Lt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, aka Tom Cruise, who — with an ego as large as an aircraft carrier — swaggered across the big screen and into the heart of luscious civilian instructor “Charlie” Blackwood, aka Kelly McGillis.
The memory gives a chuckle to Lt. Matt Diederich, a 1999 graduate of Bishop Miege High School in Roland Park — and a teenage boy at the time “Top Gun” came out in 1986.
In all his time as a naval aviator, Diederich has never seen a gorgeous lady civilian contractor seeking torrid romance with a fighter jock. Regrettably.
He brushed close to his 15 minutes of fame, however, at the State Farm Home Run Derby and Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game, July 9 and 10 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.
“When it was announced last spring that the All-Star Game was going to be in Kansas City, I thought, ‘This is it. I’m going to be in the States, flying F-18s,” said Diederich.
“I’m going to immediately start working to make a flyby happen — in my hometown, with the Navy’s frontline fighter jet,’” he recalls thinking. “If it’s in my power, I’m going to make it happen. There’s no way I’m going to miss that.”
The Navy flyover took place before the Home Run Derby on July 9. But it wasn’t the hometown boy in the cockpit.
Instead, from the ground, Diederich directed two pilots of Squadron VFA 122 “Flying Eagles” flying F/A-18 Super Hornets in a 345 mile-per-hour pass over the stadium at 1,000 feet.
The flyby took Diederich six months to plan — and lasted four seconds.
From the family’s heart
Naval aviators are created, not born, and the formation of Diederich began in the heart of his family. He is one of the six children of Paul and Sherry Diederich, members of St. Agnes Parish in Roeland Park.
The Diederichs gave their children a solid Midwestern and Catholic upbringing. The children attended St. Agnes School and then Bishop Miege High School. Diederich was an altar boy for a stretch.
“[The Catholic faith] was an intentional part of our lives,” said Diederich. “Sunday morning Mass at St. Agnes was a constant feature while we were growing up, and then a big breakfast of bacon and eggs.”
Julie Copenhaver was Matt’s eighth-grade religion and English teacher.
“He always had a big smile on his face and the greatest, positive attitude and self-confidence,” she said. “He always had a great sense of humor.”
His mother was very involved in the school, founded a junior high Catholic club and helped host dances and fun activities, said Copenhaver.
Priests were positive role models for him, both at the parish and at high school. Father Bill Bruning, then chaplain at Miege, gave him spiritual as well as athletic guidance.
“We became pretty decent friends,” said Diederich. “I was skinny — five-foot, one hundred pounds going into high school, so I could hide in lockers with the best of them. I was trying to make the baseball team and [Father Bruning] lifted weights with me and taught me how to get bigger and stronger.”
Father Bruning, who is distantly related to Diederich by marriage, recalls the family’s strong faith and the young man’s strong desire to be a pilot.
“He was a pretty outgoing kid,” said Father Bruning, now pastor of Prince of Peace Parish in Olathe. “The thing that strikes me about him is that he was one of the most focused kids I’ve ever met. He wanted to be a pilot. He had goals and was very smart.”
“Some kids dream big, but I knew this was really a goal for him,” Father Bruning continued. “He was going to make it happen.”
When dreams take off
Just when Diederich decided to be a naval aviator is hard to say.
“It has been my desire as long as I can remember,” he said.
Part of it may have been the movie “Top Gun.” (It didn’t hurt, anyway.) And part of it might have been a neighbor, also a member of St. Agnes Parish at the time.
“Dave Grant was our neighbor, and a pilot for TWA,” said Sherry Diederich. “When Matt was a junior in high school, we flew to Washington, D.C., and I think that coincided with him getting to know our neighbor.”
“And it was really great for him,” she continued, “because it motivated him to work harder and do better in school so he could become a pilot. It gave him a dream and a goal.”
Diederich got a taste of the possibilities of flying through a class taught by Bishop Miege teacher Scott Anderson, who was his cross-country running coach and honors physics teacher.
“We had a unit on flight where we went through all the physics, and the students would spend three days operating a couple of flight simulators,” said Anderson.
“I had [the students] fly different types of aircraft and Matt just lit up when he did that,” Anderson continued. “At the time, he said, ‘This is what I want to do.’ He gave himself the nickname ‘Maverick’ from ‘Top Gun.’”
After graduation from Bishop Miege, Diederich went on to Kansas State University, from which he graduated in 2003 with a bachelor’s in airway science.
From there, he began his military career, with officer candidate school, then flight training, and eventually on to assignments in Japan and to two aircraft carriers — the USS Kitty Hawk and the USS George Washington.
Today, Diederich is training the next generation of the Navy’s F-18 fighter pilots as an instructor at Naval Air Station Lemoore, Calif.
Diederich is honored to work in naval aviation with “some of the most talented, hard-working people in the world,” he said, but he’ll always treasure his Cinderella moment with the All-Stars at Kauffman.
“It was a real, unique view into the behind-the-scenes world of famous people, athletic and otherwise,” said Diederich.