We Fly: GB1 GameBird

Game Composites' new two-seater excels at more than just aerobatics.

It’s not often nowadays that a new airplane design has the potential to be a total game changer. But I would argue that German airplane designer Philipp Steinbach has created just that, at least for pilots who like to challenge their stick-and-rudder skills or “keep the green side up,” so to speak. Steinbach’s new, versatile aerobatic airplane, called the GB1 GameBird, is well on its way to receiving EASA and FAA certification. It incorporates many innovative features that make it an efficient cross-country airplane with aerobatic capabilities that have impressed the likes of freestyle world aerobatic champion Rob Holland.

I had a chance to fly with Holland out of Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, during this year's EAA AirVenture to experience the edge of the GameBird's flight envelope. I can tell you that it was one heck of a ride. We started out with aileron rolls at 180 knots to get a feel for the airplane. At the end of the flight, we had rolled the airplane at zero airspeed and 230 knots of airspeed, and put it through some maneuvers I've never experienced before.

While Steinbach is not a schooled engineer, he has designed, built and test-flown a long list of airplanes in his career. For the GameBird, he teamed up with two young but extremely talented design engineers: Jing Dai and Robert Finney. Together they found ways to create an airplane that can fly 1,000 nm, be used as a basic tailwheel trainer, or satisfy the extreme needs of those who want to play in the arena of aerobatic competition all the way up to the unlimited category. The airplane’s design is simply genius. The GameBird will be built by a new company called Game Composites, which Steinbach cofounded with Steuart Walton, a young attorney, businessman and pilot, who happens to be the grandson of Sam Walton — the founder of Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club.

GameBird GB1
The author prepares for a flight in the GameBird with freestyle aerobatic champion Rob Holland at Oshkosh.Jon Whittle

The GameBird project began in 2013 in Britain, and the team used computer-aided design (CAD) software to create the airplane. “The first drawing was two people and an engine,” Steinbach says. “Then we designed the airplane around them. With composite, you can do pretty much anything.” The GB1 first flew on July 15 of last year and made its public debut at the Flying Legends Airshow in England in early July of this year.

The GameBird was introduced in the United States at AirVenture, where a steady flow of people explored the airplane in front of the International Aerobatic Club’s building near show center. I had the pleasure of watching Steinbach fly a beautiful aerobatic routine in front of a big AirVenture crowd. The performance incorporated maneuvers I had never seen before, proving that, in addition to being a terrific designer, Steinbach is a talented aerobatic pilot who has seen great success in competition aerobatics.

One of many design elements that make the GameBird a great airplane is its fuel system. Three fuel tanks feed the airplane. The aerobatic tank, located in the nose section, holds 25 gallons, enough for a solid hour of hardcore aerobatics. The tank can also be used for takeoffs and landings. This eliminates the potential for an engine failure due to fuel being moved to the wingtip during a slip.

Each wing holds an additional 28 gallons for a total of 81 gallons of fuel, should you want to travel a good ways across the country. International traveling with the GameBird is also easier than with traditional aerobatic airplanes. Steinbach says he and one other person took the airplane apart and loaded it on an airfreight pallet in 2.5 hours — a feat that takes a couple of days for many aerobatic airplanes. Despite their stellar strength, each wing weighs only 80 pounds.

GameBird GB1
While the GB1 is flown from the rear seat, the forward visibility is decent.Jon Whittle

For long cross-country flights, some people may wish for an autopilot. Steinbach says this is not in the plans at this time for weight reasons, but the team is looking into the possibility of installing a wing leveler. Another benefit if you’re taking the GameBird on the road is that you don’t need to fit all your belongings into a tiny pouch stuffed somewhere in the cockpit. The GameBird has a decent-size luggage compartment, capable of carrying 30 pounds of gear behind the two tandem-configured seats.

The seats are static and slightly reclined, making for a comfortable ride. Adjustable air vents provide plenty of airflow in the glass cockpit. Rudder pedals are adjustable from the rear seat through a system that doesn’t require tools. The visibility from the cockpit is terrific, and on the ground, even from the rear seat, it is easier to see over the nose compared with many high-powered taildraggers. Only slight S turns need to be made during taxi operations.

The rudder control surface is tapered from top to bottom, reducing adverse yaw. Unlike many aerobatic airplanes, the GameBird can be flown without much rudder input. However, there is plenty of rudder authority for a hard aerobatic routine.

With carbon-fiber wings, pushrods and a monocoque fuselage, the final design ended up light and strong with an empty weight of 1,290 pounds. The airplane will be certified to plus and minus 10 Gs. Steinbach says the structural test prototype has been beat up in every conceivable way up to 19 Gs without structural failure.

When I first sat in the pilot’s seat, I felt that the stick was too high — a function of me being a pilot who is not used to making the quick, abrupt maneuvers required for hardcore aerobatic flight. I generally like to rest my arm on an armrest or on my leg, but even though I could not do that, the stick position felt just right once I was flying. Of course, since the GameBird is a brand-new prototype, I was not able to fly from the rear seat — the one designed for solo flight — so this was not the typical flight evaluation. But I didn’t mind. After all, I was flying with one of the greatest aerobatic pilots in the world.

GameBird GB1
Rob Holland pushed the edge of the GameBird's flight envelope at Oshkosh this year.Glenn Watson

Unlike most high-performance aerobatic airplanes, the GameBird’s ailerons have no spades, which reduces the drag and the number of parts for the airplane. Nonetheless, the aileron design has enabled a roll rate beyond anything I’ve ever experienced before. Holland performed a roll that was over before I had time to say roll. The maneuver even sent my headset flying. And I was surprised to learn that full aileron deflection can be made at any airspeed up to vne.

Steinbach says the successful design was achieved through experimentation with a number of factors such as the thickness of the airfoil and the positioning of the hinge points on the ailerons, which run the full span of the trailing edges of the wings. During multiple test flights, Steinbach established a linear graph, determining a roll rate of 1.874 times the airspeed in knots. That translates to a roll rate of 400 degrees per second at 200 kias. Yeah, you read that right. It will complete a roll in less than a second.

Another clever design element that adds to the versatility of the GameBird is the ability to quickly shift the center of gravity based on the mission. Below the horizontal stabilizer is a chamber on each side of the empennage, each of which can accept up to 25 pounds of ballast to shift the CG aft in a matter of seconds. The shift in CG makes the airplane more maneuverable but less stable to enable extreme aerobatic moves. The controls felt well-balanced, but I could sense the instability in pitch. “Stability is the enemy of aerobatics,” Holland noted.

GameBird GB1
On each side of the empennage is a ballast chamber that allows for a quick CG change.Jon Whittle

Noise is becoming more and more of an issue at airports around the world, and by nature, high-performance, high-horsepower engines create a ton of noise. To reduce the noise footprint of the GB1, the Lycoming AEIO-580-B1A engine will be limited to 2,600 rpm and 303 hp. The GameBird’s mating call was also reduced by attaching a four-blade, wood-core/composite MT-Propeller prop to the engine. Steinbach’s flight at AirVenture was noticeably quieter than the other performers'.

The airplane has plenty of power, however, and terrific vertical penetration capabilities. With a full aerobatic tank and Holland and me in the airplane, we climbed straight up from 2,300 feet to 4,600 feet before Holland pushed the GB1 over into a hammerhead. Holland also guided the GameBird into a tumble. The GB1 complied without complaint.

Slow-flight characteristics of the GameBird are simply inconceivable. Below 60 knots, I could still comfortably control the airplane in pitch and roll. The stall was a slight buffet at around 55 knots, and with just a touch of power, I barely had to push the stick forward to recover. Steinbach says the thickness of the symmetrical wings combines strength with low weight while the beautifully curved leading edges, which have uniform radiuses from root to tip, allow for a smooth transition from the stall to post-stall maneuvers. To show the ultimate edge of slow flight, Holland applied tons of power, demonstrated a roll at zero airspeed, and came out without any altitude loss. Sure, I was with one of the best pilots in the world, but it was impressive to see the airplane comply with his extreme demands. “You can tell it’s designed by a pilot,” Holland says.

GameBird Angle of Attack
An AOA probe is attached to the oversize pitot tube.Jon Whittle

With the GameBird’s terrific stall characteristics, Steinbach says the FAA will allow for an equivalent level of safety without any stall warning system, which would have fouled the beautiful lines of the leading edge of the curved wing. There is, however, a sizable pitot tube with an angle of attack probe connected to an electronic AOA indicator, which was designed by the Game Composites team. The instrument also incorporates a G-meter and outside air temperature. An Electronics International MVP-50 engine monitor allows the pilot who likes to push the Lycoming to the max to make sure the engine stays happy.

Certification is being sought concurrently with the FAA and EASA. As we all know, certification is a huge hurdle, and getting through the initial phase of production is another. But with the financial backing of Walton, the project has a relatively high probability of success.

A 40,000-square-foot production facility has been established in Bentonville, Arkansas. Steinbach says customers will be able to place deposits once both the type certificates are in hand and production has begun. The company simply wants to know it can deliver on its promises before it starts taking money from customers, an admirable quest that is uncommon for new companies in this industry. The price tag for the first 20 GB1s will be $399,000. While the GameBird may look like a beautiful endangered species, it has the potential to hatch and multiply into flocks, spreading its wings at many airports and airshows around the world.

See more photos of the GameBird. Photo Gallery

Game Composites GB1 GameBird

Price $399,000
Engine Lycoming AEIO-580-B1A
Propeller 4-blade wood/composite MT-Propeller
Seats 2
Max takeoff weight 2,200 pounds
Empty weight 1,290 pounds
Useful load 910 pounds
Max takeoff weight, aerobatics 1,940 pounds
Fuel capacity 81 gallons
Acro tank 25 gallons
Load factor +/- 10 Gs
Length 22.6 feet
Height 7.5 feet
Wingspan 25.3 feet
Wing area 121.25 square feet
Cabin width 25.5 inches
Cabin height 38 inches
Max speed 235 kias
Normal cruise (75% power) 200 ktas
Max rate of climb 2,600 fpm
Max range 1,000 nm
Takeoff distance 980 feet
Landing distance 1,490 feet
Stall speed 55 knots