Final Flight: A look at the investigation into what brought down National Airlines 2511

Final Flight: A look at the investigation into what brought down National Airlines 2511

BOLIVIA, N.C. (WECT) - Shortly after 2:31 a.m. on Jan. 6, 1960, the peaceful night sky over the mouth of the Cape Fear River was rocked by a large blast.

Seven minutes later, National Airlines flight 2511, which had been carrying 29 passengers and 5 crew members, crashed into a field in Brunswick County.

There were no survivors.

Over the following six months, federal agencies determined the crash had been caused by an explosion inside the cabin, most likely from dynamite — but even after an extensive investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, no charges were filed, and the case remains unsolved.

However, investigators did have one primary theory they explored in a more than 550 page file obtained by WECT: Flight 2511 may have been brought down due to the suicide of one of its passengers, Julian Frank — a man with “unscrupulous” business dealings, nearly a million dollars in life insurance policies and a reportedly disturbed state of mind in the weeks and months leading up to the tragedy.

The Crash

A family living just outside of Bolivia heard the sound of the plane when it crashed into a field near their home, but given they had no telephone, waited until the following morning to report the event to authorities after walking to the post office in Bolivia.

The initial crash investigation was done by the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), a since-shuttered federal bureau that investigated matters of aviation safety.

Debris from the flight was found at two primary locations: the main crash site off Highway 17 in Bolivia, and Kure Beach.

CAB investigators determined that portions of the plane’s fuselage found at Kure Beach had damage consistent with an explosion they believe occurred as the plane crossed over the end of Pleasure Island. Minutes later, the plane is believed to have begun to disintegrate before finally crashing.

The explosion is believed to have happened near the right wing, between rows six and seven.

The bodies of 33 of the victims were found at the main crash site, but that of Julian Andrew Frank was found some 16 miles away in Snow’s Marsh along the bank of the Cape Fear River.

Victims’ bodies were taken to a high school in Southport for identification, and the wreckage of the National Douglas DC-6B was taken to the Wilmington airport for reconstruction and further investigation.

Photos from 1960 of the wreckage of National Airlines Flight 2511
Photos from 1960 of the wreckage of National Airlines Flight 2511 (Source: Linda Bufano)

Frank’s body had sustained significantly worse — and different — injuries than the other victims in the crash. These injuries, investigators concluded, were consistent with Frank having been in extremely close proximity to the explosion.

In the weeks following the crash local and national news outlets reported extensively on Frank, and his possible connection to the fate of the flight, but the FBI file further catalogs the months leading up to the tragedy, and the lawyer’s mental state as he boarded the plane.

Julian Frank, Esq.

Julian Andrew Frank, a New York attorney who lived in Westport, Connecticut, boarded NA2511 with the other 33 passengers around 11:30 p.m. on Jan. 5.

According to witnesses at Idlewild airport, where the flight originated, Frank appeared physically ill and disturbed, allegedly muttering “I’m not going, I’m not going,” under his breath prior to boarding.

Frank was married with children and worked primarily as a mortgage broker after leaving the U.S. Attorney’s Office, though he did continue to serve as a defense attorney in the months leading up to his death.

A photo in an archived copy of the Wilmington Star-News at the New Hanover County Library shows Frank Julian with his wife.
A photo in an archived copy of the Wilmington Star-News at the New Hanover County Library shows Frank Julian with his wife. (Source: wect)

According to the FBI investigation, which interviewed dozens of Frank’s associates, friends and family, the attorney was thought of as socially nice, but somewhat unsavory when it came to his professional life.

The file says associates described Frank as “a supreme egotist and braggart who had big, ‘get rich quick’ ideas. A majority of these individuals expressed the opinion that Julian Frank was an intelligent but unscrupulous operator who invariably failed to deliver on his business commitments.”

Walls Closing In

The primary motives the FBI established pointing to Frank having committed suicide by blowing up Flight 2511, was a growing list of unsatisfied mortgage commitments, lawsuits, and other financial and legal problems.

In the two years preceding his death, the FBI estimates Frank took responsibility for $25 million in negotiated financial transactions, collecting roughly $90,000 in fees for this work — more than $217 million and $782,000 in 2020 dollars, respectively.

At the time of his death, Frank had been unable to close at least 20 different mortgage accounts, and according to one of his closest professional associates, Herbert Cantor, clients had been calling demanding answers, including a major real estate developer Frank was supposed to meet with the day following his death.

One former client, Jerry Plucer-Sarna — who the FBI determined was Frank’s only true “enemy”— had filed complaints both with a New York district attorney and with the New York State Bar Association against Frank, alleging he had embezzled $20,000. The two were also in a civil court battle over the amount.

Other clients also filed complaints with the DA over Frank’s failure to secure their loans, and newspaper reports from January 1960 estimated Frank may have been behind on his obligations by as much as $600,000.

In the six months before the crash, Frank reportedly depleted his many bank accounts in New York, sold his stock holdings and closed his brokerage account.

The FBI found evidence Frank’s own associates may have also been moving to oust him from J & P Factors Investment Syndicate, which Frank had represented.

Fears

As was reported extensively in the weeks following the crash, Julian Frank had taken out nearly $1 million in life and air-travel insurance policies in the eight months prior to his death.

Some associates of Julian Frank told investigators the attorney had an intense fear of flying.

Frank’s wife reported he would get physically ill before a flight, and that he had called her the evening of Jan. 5 just before the plane departed, reporting gastrointestinal distress.

Cantor reported the same, saying Frank’s fear of air travel came from an incident that occurred while Frank was in the Air Force and stationed in Mississippi.

However, the FBI found no evidence of such a crash during Frank’s time in the service.

Further, Julian Frank was no stranger to air travel, both for business and pleasure.

The FBI file includes a detailed list of the dozens of flights Frank took in the years leading up to the January 1960 crash. These trips were in aircraft ranging in size from large commercial flights to personal crafts.

Still, Frank appeared to others to be convinced his flight from New York City to Miami would be his last.

He was heard making wagers with friends at a New Year’s Eve party that he would not return from Florida, and he reportedly told the attendant checking luggage and selling last-minute insurance that he had a “feeling” about the trip.

Trial Run

One episode returns time and time again in the FBI’s investigation into Frank: What the investigators believed could have been a ‘trial run’ of the Jan. 6 events.

On Nov. 17, 1959, Frank was due in court to represent two defendants charged with hijacking, but he failed to show, and had not contacted. The day before, he had been forced to leave the courtroom on multiple occasions due to fits of vomiting, but the judge was not moved, and threatened to hold the attorney in contempt.

The FBI's investigation showed Julian Frank sent another individual on a similar flight to Miami.
The FBI's investigation showed Julian Frank sent another individual on a similar flight to Miami. (Source: Federal Bureau of Investigation)

Instead of being in court, Frank was at the Idlewild Airport, waiting on someone to arrive.

Frank had sent an associate, whose name was redacted by the FBI, on a trip from New York to Miami — on the same flight path National Airlines 2511 would eventually take.

He had done so insisting that the associate use his name and identification cards both on the flight and at the hotel. Frank had also sent the gentleman with a locked briefcase and suitcase.

When interviewed, the man said he didn’t know what was inside, and didn’t ask.

The man told the FBI once he arrived in Miami, he received a call from Frank telling him this was a “dry run” and to return immediately.

Herbert Cantor told investigators when he found Frank at the airport, he “appeared to be ‘a lost soul in a fog', and that he was incredibly agitated until the man arrived back and returned the luggage.

The week of Nov. 16-20, 1959 was found to be missing from Frank’s personal diary, despite the fact that he kept detailed records of his professional and personal activities.

Dynamite

One of the reasons the FBI began looking into Julian Frank so early in the investigation of the crash of Flight 2511, was because they received a tip to the Detroit field office that Frank had asked around about how to acquire dynamite.

Frank reportedly mentioned or asked about dynamite to two different people, as well as delayed fuses, though the FBI was unable to establish how he would have ultimately ascertained the substance despite a search that spanned several states.

The FBI also had questions about Frank’s ability to construct a bomb on his own. While he had two years of basic engineering in high school, his associates did not describe him as particularly handy.

Investigators did find batteries in the Frank home with a similar chemical make-up to what was found in the wreckage of the aircraft, however.

Additionally, Frank was connected to Harry Stone — someone the FBI described as being connected to “the underworld,” and who might have been able to obtain dynamite to give to Frank.

Unsettled State of Mind

Herbert Cantor noted to investigators that in the months leading up to his death, Frank seemed to grow nervous and unsettled.

On the day of his death, his wife phoned a woman in Miami, telling her Frank seemed “depressed,” and asked if she could cheer him up.

Around the time of the “dry run,” Frank reportedly told a work associate “his mind was not clear and he could not think properly,” and witnesses at the airport as the plane was about to depart reported the man seemed perturbed.

The FBI file details an exchange between Frank and his wife, who reportedly said Frank screamed at her regarding one of his pieces of luggage.
The FBI file details an exchange between Frank and his wife, who reportedly said Frank screamed at her regarding one of his pieces of luggage. (Source: Federal Bureau of Investigation)

Frank’s doctors also noticed his unsettled state of mind.

One reported: "he was completely worn out mentally, uncoordinated and hyper-kinetic to the point that he was unable to sleep or logically complete a topic of conversation.”

Other Theories

The CAB officially ruled the Jan. 6, 1960 crash as being caused by an explosion inside the cabin, because the plane had exhibited no mechanical issues prior to the flight, the crew did not report any concerns and the weather that night was calm and clear.

The FBI’s case, however, remains officially unsolved.

While much of the investigative file looks closely at Julian Frank and their reasons for believing he committed suicide, the FBI did consider other theories, including that while Frank was in close proximity to the explosion, he did not set it off purposefully.

They entertained that Frank may have been carrying the explosives to Florida as part of a financial deal — he had connections to unrest in South America, among other questionable things — and the dynamite may have detonated by accident.

Given his connection to Harry Stone and other New York individuals within the organized crime community, they considered the possibility someone may have had Frank killed.

However, even Frank’s known enemy, Sarna, was not believed to have been so aggrieved as to resort to violence, and the FBI’s sources in the “underworld” said Frank was not of high enough importance to merit the collateral damage.

Were you there?

WECT will continue digging into the case of what happened to Flight 2511, and is looking for anyone who was alive in 1960 and remembers the events of Jan. 6 and the months that followed.

If you or a loved one has something to share, please let us know by emailing investigates@wect.com, or calling (910) 791-6681 and asking for the WECT Investigates team. We’d also be interested in home videos or photos of the event.

Brandon Wissbaum contributed to this report.

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