An airship of titanic proportions, the Iron Vulture belongs to the fearsome Air Pirates of Don Karnage, who plunder the skyways at will from their fortress-like flagship. Even the largest cargo planes pale in comparison to this enormous vessel. A quarter mile in length, the Iron Vulture is without doubt the largest airship ever built — as well as the most infamous airborne vehicle in history. Like a vulture, she swoops out of the sky to prey upon the defenseless and unwary. Her ominous profile is a familiar and dreaded sight to cargo pilots.
Mystery surrounds the origin of the Iron Vulture. Some believe that the Vulture belonged to another pirate band until Don Karnage "liberated" the airship and overthrew her former captain. Others rumor that Karnage constructed the Vulture in secret and used it to turn other pirates to his side — although such an undertaking would have been hideously expensive and impossible to conceal. Besides, Karnage is the sort of pirate who would rather steal something than build it. Of course, it is also possible that the Vulture belonged to Karnage's family and was merely passed down to him by a relative.
According to one account, the Iron Vulture was produced in one of the most ambitious projects of the Great War. During the War, an alliance between Usland and Thembria culminated in plans for what were destined to be the greatest airborne fighting machines of all time — the "air carriers." Designed by Cape Suzette engineers and built by the massive Thembrian labor force, these airships — a quarter-mile long, carrying powerful weapons and whole squadrons of planes — would lead a massive assault on an oppressive expansionist nation which was a mutual enemy of both the Thembrians and Uslanders.
After many months of construction, the air carrier was completed and prepared to enter service. However, an unexpected coup overthrew the enemy government before the carriers ever saw combat, and the Great War itself ended soon thereafter. Finding the air carrier too expensive to maintain now that active military ventures had ceased, Cape Suzette and Thembria were forced to retire the idea prematurely.
Over a dozen years later, a daring raid by a ragtag squadron of Air Pirates — led by a young brigand named Don Karnage — led to the theft of the Iron Vulture, one of the forgotten airships. The incident raised a few eyebrows among authorities but failed to generate widespread concern. After all, the carrier had not been maintained for over a decade, and its technology was woefully crude compared to the advances in aviation design made since the Great War. Where could a lunatic band of pirates succeed where Cape Suzette and Thembria had failed?
The secret lay in Don Karnage's ability to manage his resources. Karnage hid the Iron Vulture in a secret base, revamping and refurbishing it to suit his piratical purposes. The ship's already-considerable firepower was bolstered by the addition of freshly-stolen CT-37 attack fighters to the ship's complement. Now the Iron Vulture is the flagship of the Air Pirates, striking fear and panic into the hearts of cargo pilots everywhere. Far from being obsolete, the Vulture can hold its own against a whole squadron of fighters — although Karnage seldom fights when he can flee.
The Iron Vulture is a staggering feat of aircraft design. From bow to stern, the Vulture spans an incredible 1,200 feet! The rear tail fin adds an extra 300 to this, bringing the Vulture's overall length to a grand total of 1,500 feet. To enhance the Vulture's already-intimidating presence, the Air Pirates crafted a look for the ship similar to that of a monstrous bird of prey. The Vulture's prow is shaped like an enormous beak, while her towering stern sail and the protruding designs behind the bridge vaguely resemble giant feathers. The gaudy purple and gold color scheme of the airship, personally selected by Don Karnage, further establishes the Vulture's resemblance to a bird of prey.
The Vulture's beak contains a mechanized "jaw" platform which lowers to provide access to the interior of the ship. The main hangar, which makes up most of the Vulture's interior, is a cavernous bay capable of holding three full squadrons of fighter planes as well as several cargo aircraft.
The jaw itself acts as a runway extension; it is usually closed while traveling or landing (often to prevent captured planes from escaping) and opens to dispatch fighters. A manually-operated gear system originally served to raise and lower the jaw — when it proved too slow and cumbersome in emergencies, Karnage replaced the gears with hydraulics.
The Iron Vulture's original beak mechanism was manually controlled; the jaw platform was quickly lowered, but raised slowly by cranking heavy gears. Now the system works through a control box.
As mentioned above, the Iron Vulture can hold up to thirty planes in its main cargo bay. Most of the fighters are usually stored out of sight in smaller adjoining hangars, cleverly concealed behind wall panels. Two large bomb bay doors in the floor of the hangar can be opened to jettison cargo, dump plundered aircraft, or launch fighters. For some operations like deploying submarines, a smaller circular port within the bay doors themselves can be used. Controls to release the bay doors are located in the bridge and at key spots in the hangar; all are linked to an alarm system throughout the ship that sounds when the doors are opened.
Should the flight deck become too crowded for safe takeoffs or landings, a hydraulic lift platform carries planes from the hangar to the upper deck of the Vulture. Other means of access into the ship are two one-man hatches in the upper deck of the Vulture, leading to catwalks suspended at dizzying heights above the hangar floor.
Numerous concealed doors are also installed in the sides of the Vulture's outer hull, though their exact locations are unknown. These hatches, all but forgotten by Karnage and his crew, open directly to the outside and must have been originally designed as emergency escape routes.
The small, round hatches seen here allow access to the Iron Vulture's top deck, while the door at lower right leads from a middle-deck platform to the outside. Both were apparently meant for emergencies.
The Iron Vulture is equipped with twelve vertical propeller engines, six on each side of the upper runway. When used on full throttle, they can lift over 100 tons of cargo (exact specifications are unavailable). It is suspected that some internal buoyancy system, possibly helium tanks in the superstructure, bear most of the ship's empty weight. In addition to the vertical engines holding the Iron Vulture aloft, two massive rear-facing prop engines drive the ship forward.
Due to the sheer size of the engine system, the Vulture's engines are powered by turbine generators located deep within the ship. Because of the unique configuration of the vertical engine system, lightning strikes can play havoc with the Iron Vulture's maneuvering.
Start-up time for the engines is remarkably short; the Vulture can be up and flying in under a minute. The Iron Vulture commonly cruises at 35 to 40 miles per hour, but she is capable of exceeding 100 mph at full throttle. Navigation is accomplished by shifting power between the two rear engines as a method of steering. The giant tail fin, which deflects wind flow like a plane's rudder, preserves a stable course.
Since the Iron Vulture was designed as an airborne battleship, its engines conserve as much fuel as possible for maximum efficiency. Huge tanks in the aft of the ship store enough fuel for over an estimated four weeks of nonstop flight! Whenever possible, Karnage lands the Vulture in a remote area of the ocean to conserve its precious fuel supplies and recharge the main generators. The watertight hull of the Vulture enables it to rest indefinitely in the water (just as long as nobody opens the bomb bay doors, that is). No one knows just how Karnage manages to get enough fuel to keep the Iron Vulture operating as often as it does.
The entire ship is controlled from the bridge overlooking the Iron Vulture's prow. In a nod to pirate tradition, the steersman uses an old-fashioned ship's wheel to pilot the craft. Throttle levers control the power of the ship's rear engines while a single lever activates and throttles the main propulsion system. Various gauges and pipes adorn the base of the ship's spacious main windows, which offer a striking view of the Iron Vulture's surroundings. In case the view is obstructed or the steersman simply wants to see behind the Vulture, a ceiling-mounted periscope provides a 360-degree field of visibility. Don Karnage personally commands the ship from a stylish captain's chair bolted to the floor in the middle of the room.
The rest of the Vulture's interior is contained within the huge double hulls on either side of the main hangar. These consist of a veritable maze of corridors, hallways, and catwalks leading to different areas of the ship. The confusing layout of the Iron Vulture means that one unfamiliar with the ship can get lost very easily. Without a map or firsthand knowledge of the ship's interior, a person can wander for what seems like hours through the dimly-lit corridors.
Installed almost as an afterthought by the Vulture's original designers, the ventilation system feeds from the main hangar bay and circulates air throughout the entire ship. After so many years in storage, the Vulture is quite musty and the air smells faintly of mothballs. In addition, the air ducts are infested with roaches and other vermin which often emerge in various parts of the ship. Resourceful as always, the Vulture's crew has learned to make the best of the situation by capturing a few of the critters and holding "cockroach races" as shipboard entertainment. Individuals bent on infiltrating the vessel may use the ventilation shafts to avoid detection.
The Vulture's hallways are distinguished by levels. The upper level of the interior contains the turbine generators for the engines, as well as the prison block, a section lined with prison cells and holding areas of all shapes and sizes. Each cell is different but all are secure and practically impossible to escape, unless a prisoner is particularly clever. It is estimated that nearly 200 people could be held captive aboard the ship at one time, but usually the cells remain empty. Any occupants are usually victims of Air Pirate raids — few stay for more than a couple of days before they are released outright, held for ransom, or worse.
The communications room of the Iron Vulture is also on the upper level near the aft section of the Vulture. Once a standard multi-frequency transceiver, the ship's radio has been rewired countless times and upgraded with jury-rigged parts and electronics. As a result, the Iron Vulture can pick up frequencies across the entire civilian range plus military and other "shielded" channels. Moreover, it can transmit messages in any of these frequencies as well as in a special "pirate" shortwave signal that authorities are still trying to unscramble.
Patching into secure frequencies is simple for the pirates. As an added bonus, the radio scrambles signals along that same frequency on other planes' radios in the area. The Iron Vulture's radio system can only be accessed from the radio room or the bridge — it is also connected to a retractable loudspeaker underneath the ship for publicly broadcasting Karnage's long-winded announcements. The Vulture's intercom, a separate system, can be accessed at terminals located throughout the ship; the system feeds into the bridge radio to relay messages to those at the helm. Additionally, a small network of voice tubes carries announcements and general orders from the bridge to the main decks, crew quarters, and the Vulture's engine room. Messages aboard ship can be delivered via radio intercom or through speaking tubes.
The middle decks are composed of the crew quarters, small to mid-sized cabins containing four bunks each. Few pirates get a room all to themselves, five or six shipmates usually sharing one room. As a result, the berths are a haphazard tangle of random belongings and assorted clutter, barely fit for even the most hardened fighting men. Only the captain's mates and Don Karnage himself have their own private quarters. Any unoccupied rooms are used as storage areas for clothes, equipment, and junk.
The Vulture's galley is also located on the middle level. Like all airship galleys, this small room is built for economy. Multi-range ovens and compact cooking equipment, salvaged from downed passenger liners, is installed in available nooks and crannies of empty kitchen space. While not up to sanitary standards, the galley is capable of preparing enough food each day to keep Karnage's men satisfied.
There are two main eating areas in the ship, a spacious mess hall which was converted from a munitions hangar, and a smaller private room near the galley itself where Karnage and his more trusted crewmen dine. Air pirates are known to have sloppy table manners; needless to say, mealtime on board is not for those with weak stomachs. At full capacity the Iron Vulture's food stores contain enough stock to feed the entire ship's crew for four weeks.
Weapons and equipment storage make up the lower deck of the Vulture. A repair booth adjoins the hangar where pirate mechanics modify weapons and patch up damaged fighters. Also on the lower decks is the treasure room, a huge vault holding the Air Pirates' ill-gotten gains. Valuables stored here do not remain on the Vulture very long — the pirates commonly unload their store back at base each month. However, a sizable portion of riches remains on board at all times for the captain's enjoyment.
The Iron Vulture was designed primarily as a giant airborne hangar, but it features several impressive weapons systems that allow it to function independently of fighter support. The Vulture's primary weapons are the enormous front cannons. Among the largest and most powerful weapons ever produced, these huge artillery guns were banned from production soon after the Great War ended. Kept in concealed bays on either side of the Vulture, these cannons are capable of causing massive destruction. In fact, using these guns the Air Pirates may stand a fair chance of eliminating Cape Suzette’s cliff defenses. Fortunately, an acute shortage of heavy ammo forces the Pirates to conserve what few shells they have.
Two other large cannons cover the aft section of the Vulture. For broadside attacks, the Iron Vulture deploys six medium cannons hidden behind concealed panels along the sides of the ship. Other weapons aboard the Vulture include numerous small machine guns scattered across the lower hull, as well as a rarely-used topside cannon.
Defensively, the Iron Vulture is one of the most well-armored ships in the air. The strength of the vessel is a testament to its solid construction. Several layers of bolted metal plates and armor form an extremely resilient exterior impervious to most attacks. Vulnerable points include the propeller engines and the bridge, as well as the dozens of portholes scattered across the airship's hull. Even the massive Iron Vulture is no match for a full-scale barrage from fighter planes or cliff guns, a fact which makes Don Karnage particularly inclined to run from a fight once the enemy starts shooting back.
When attacks fail, Karnage commonly employs subterfuge to mask the Vulture's presence, with varying degrees of success.
The Air Pirates make it a point to avoid direct confrontation with the authorities whenever possible. Due to this and the irregularity of the pirates' attacks, authorities are hard-pressed to determine the Iron Vulture's location with any certainty. The laws of international airspace also complicate the Air Police's attempts to apprehend the pirates over "free waters." Considering the number of chance encounters and close calls the Vulture has had with coastal fighter planes over the years, it seems only a matter of time before Karnage and his men are caught. But as long as the Iron Vulture roams the airways, the skies will never be truly safe.