(CNN) -- Flight attendant Ilona Zahn wasn't too impressed when she met pilot Ian Duncan.


The year was 1970. Ilona worked in the first-class cabin of a Pan American Airlines flight from Rome to Tehran, via Beirut and Damascus.

The first time Ilona saw Ian was a couple of hours before takeoff. He was standing, in his sky-blue Pan Am uniform, with the rest of the crew in the lobby of Rome's Hotel Metropole.

"We were waiting, chatting," Ilona recalls.

Ian approached, tall, with pilot's stripes on each shoulder, greeted the crew, and introduced himself as the flight's first officer.

"Most of the pilots were very friendly, they would come over if you didn't know them from before and introduce themselves," Ilona now tells CNN Travel. "I thought he was friendly, but I didn't have much of an impression of him."

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Then a couple of hours passed. The passengers were boarding a Boeing 707 at the airport. Ilona was ordering the provisions in the first-class galley. Serving first class also meant being aware of the pilots' needs, so Ilona wasn't surprised when another flight attendant approached her with a string of drink orders straight from the cockpit.

Ilona Zahn, pictured here sitting on a Boeing 707, loved working for Pan American Airlines. Credit: Ilona Duncan

Ilona's colleague listed the engineer's and captain's requests for soft drinks, tea, and coffee. Then, a little embarrassed, she added co-pilot Ian's request:
"He says he wants coffee 'blond and sweet like the girl in the galley.'"

Ilona rolled her eyes. She loved her job and traveling the world, but this kind of feedback, received daily from colleagues and passengers alike, wore her down.

"I had a lot of admirers, because I was pretty," Ilona says now. "I wasn't in the mood that day for anyone to bother me. ' Leave me alone, please.' That was my idea."

Ilona poured a black coffee. Then he turned to his colleague, a twinkle in his eye.

"Okay, now he's going to take it blonde and sweet," she said. Then, he made his way to the bar and dropped Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce, salt, and pepper into the cup.

"I put everything horrible I could think of in his coffee," Ilona recalls. "Then I put some cream on top. And I said, 'Okay, take this to the co-pilot.'"

When Ian took a sip, he spat it out right away. For a moment he was in shock. Then he laughed and turned to the captain.

"He must like me to go to so much trouble."

From Tehran to Rome

Ilona and Ian are pictured together in 1974. Credit: Ilona Duncan

The flight arrived in Tehran in the late afternoon. It was pre-revolution Iran, and the crew of Pan Am was transferred to the Royal Tehran Hilton, a luxury hotel located at the foot of the Elburz Mountains. Thus began the usual crew party. The group gathered in the captain's room for cocktails and chatting until the wee hours of the morning.

Ilona and Ian were watching each other from opposite sides of the room. She appreciated that, after the coffee incident, he kept a respectful distance. It was the first time Ilona had seen Ian without a Pan Am uniform and he was wearing dark pants paired with a light-colored cashmere turtleneck. Ilona was 25 years old.

He estimated that Ian was about ten years older. He seemed to be well-liked and respected by his peers.

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The next morning, the phone in Ilona's hotel room rang at 10 o'clock. Half asleep and bewildered by who might be calling, she answered cautiously.

It was Ian. "Do you want to come to the bazaar with me?" he asked.

Ilona agreed, but told him that she wouldn't be willing to leave until later, that she was catching up on sleep. They agreed to meet in the afternoon, with a few other members of the crew. The group traveled in one of the hotel's private vans.

Then they strolled through Tehran's Grand Bazaar, looking at copper pots and haggling over caviar. After an hour, Ilona was ready to go back to the hotel. Ian told her he would accompany her and asked for a taxi.

The taxi got stuck in traffic. With nothing else to do but spend time chatting, Ian and Ilona had plenty to talk about. She told him about her past: born at the end of World War II in Germany, she had consciously "divorced" her country when she was young and had lived in London, New York and Paris ever since. Ian said he was born in the United States, the son of Scottish immigrants, and had dreamed of flying airplanes all his life.

"We never stop talking. And we really enjoyed each other's company. And that's pretty much what attracted me to him," Ilona says.

That night, Ian and Ilona dined at a Persian restaurant with their crewmates. Afterwards, Ian asked Ilona if she wanted to observe the views from her bedroom balcony, promising her that they were spectacular.

As they gazed at the city lights, Ian asked Ilona if he could kiss her.

It was, says Ilona, "a long, romantic embrace."

When their Pan Am flight returned to Rome, Ian and Ilona spent the afternoon strolling through the city together. They threw coins into the Trevi Fountain. They spent hours sitting together, talking and drinking at the hotel bar.

The next day, Ilona flew back to New York and Ian left for Paris. They didn't exchange phone numbers or promise to see each other again. But a few days later, Ilona opened her crew's mailbox at John F. Kennedy Airport and a note from Ian fell. "I'd like to see you again," he said. He suggested that they ask together for another flight to Rome and Tehran.

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An International Romance

Here's Ian and Ilona photographed in Sydney, Australia. Credit: Ilona Duncan

Thus began a whirlwind of international courtship. Ian, as senior first officer, is usually the first to choose the flights. He would tell Ilona about his schedule and she would try to get the same trips. They often tried to travel together to Rome. All Pan Am flight attendants were required to be fluent in at least a second language, but Ilona spoke five, including Italian, so she usually managed to be the first to choose flights to Rome.

Over the next two years, Ian and Ilona enjoyed what Ilona calls "a wonderful love story."

It was fun and exciting. Their jobs gave them the opportunity to go out together all over the world: from strolling along the Seine in Paris to touring museums in London, browsing shops in Tokyo or going on safari in Kenya.

"We had a wonderful time where we flew together almost every month," Ilona says.

When their flights didn't match, letters were left at Intercontinental hotels frequented by the Pan Am crew. Or, if they were both on different flights, they would call each other on the Pan Am radio.

"Someone would say, 'I've got someone here who wants to talk to you,'" Iona recalls. "So I'd get into the cockpit. And there he was on the Pan Am radio, talking to me, 30,000 feet. Incredible. It was exciting."

Their connection deepened.

"Eventually, we really fell in love," Ilona says.

Not everyone took Ilona and Ian's romance as seriously as they did. Ilona remembers telling a friend in New York about Ian and telling her that he had a "history of affairs."

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But to Ilona, Ian was different from the men she used to cross paths with.

"Living in New York in the '60s, everyone and their siblings wanted to date me," she says.

"A lot of flight attendants were hanging out with rich men who thought they were doing you a favor by asking you out, and I didn't like that. I knew I wanted someone I could have a conversation with."

She had always been a little wary of Pan Am pilots, who were often charming but "want to sleep with you and that's it."

Still, with Ian "it just worked."

"We were very much in love," Ilona says now. "We had a lot of things in common. We both loved nature. We both agreed to do whatever the other person wanted. For example, I like classical music. I like opera. I like concerts. He would go with me to that and I would go fishing with him."

Ian and Ilona didn't keep their romance a secret.

"We were known for being the couple in love. We'd get to a station and people would say, 'They're here again, lovers, things like that.'"

Some of his co-workers said it wouldn't last, and there was a few teases here and there. But others also supported them. On voyages, if the captain got a room bigger than co-pilot Ian's, he would often offer it so that Ian and Ilona could stay together in the larger space.

At work, "there was often flirting," Ilona says.

"He would come into the kitchen and make sure everything was going well, just to keep an eye on me."

Life at Pan Am

Here's Ilona photographed working in the galley of a Pan Am plane. Credit: Ilona Duncan

Ilona enjoyed her romance with Ian, but she also wanted to retain her independence. Ever since she left Germany in her late teens, she had moved forward on her own. She had studied a degree in science and at first wanted to be a doctor. He then became interested in languages, learned French in Paris and obtained the Cambridge Proficiency Certificate in London. For a time he lived in New York, where he worked at Tiffany's jewelry store on Fifth Avenue.

It was during a stay in Bermuda in 1968 that Ilona first walked into a Pan Am office, asking about volunteer work.

"We don't really need volunteers at the Pan American airport," the man at the counter explained.

"But I'll give you a free ticket to New York for an interview. I know you're going to be hired as a flight attendant."

Conseguir trabajo en Pan American solía ser competitivo, pero Ilona tenía un pase rápido de la oficina de Bermudas. Entró en la oficina del aeropuerto JFK con los papeles en la mano y le ofrecieron un trabajo en el acto.

"Nuestra vida pasó a manos de Pan American. Pero me pareció maravilloso porque me gustaba mucho el trabajo", dice Ilona. "En aquella época, era un tipo de viaje muy lujoso y conocí a mucha gente maravillosa, no solo famosos, aunque también muchos de ellos".

Ilona recuerda haberse relacionado en el trabajo con estrellas de cine como Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor y Sophia Loren.

Hoy en día, el romance rodea a Pan Am, e Ilona confirma que trabajar como auxiliar de vuelo allí era "definitivamente glamuroso".

Había fiestas constantes, "ya fuera en Nueva Delhi o en Bangkok, o en Beirut".

"A veces nos íbamos dos semanas seguidas, volando de Nueva York a Hong Kong y vuelta", dice Ilona. "Siempre llevábamos ropa elegante, como un vestidito negro".

Detrás del glamour también había trabajo duro.

"Hacía huevos revueltos para 120 personas en clase turista", recuerda Ilona.

Pero incluso cuando el trabajo era agotador, a Ilona le encantaba. Disfrutaba de la oportunidad de explorar el mundo, de ver lugares sobre los que otras personas solo leían en los folletos de viajes.

Mientras trabajaba para Pan Am, Ilona también fichó por una agencia de modelos. Hizo varios anuncios de perfumes y maquillaje. Luego, en 1971, la contrataron para hacer un anuncio para Playboy en nombre de Pan Am.

"Hay muchas bellas razones para volar en Pan Am", decía el anuncio. "Ilona Zahn es solo una de ellas".

The text described Ilona as "the girl who makes you feel at home. The Girl Who Wears the Wings of Pan Am. He's an angel."

When Ilona read it for the first time, she thought it was "hilarious."

Photos in the post, taken over two days in West Hampton, Long Island and Manhattan, showed Ilona horseback riding, shopping and on the beach. There were also a couple of photos of Ilona at work, in her Pan Am uniform.

A few years later, Pan Am was looking for a flight attendant to pose for a life-size cardboard cutout that would be displayed in the company's offices and travel agencies around the world. Ilona was in her sights thanks to her experience as a model. She went to the Pan Am building, at 200 Park Avenue, and found herself in a room with 20 other flight attendants. They all posed for photos, and Pan Am chose their favorite: a full-length photo of Ilona, wearing a blue uniform, tie, and a Pan Am bag.

"This was in 1975, 1976. The next day, my poster was in every travel agency, every airport, and every Pan Am office in the world," recalls Ilona, who jokes that now Ian would literally never be able to escape her.

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Escape to Las Vegas

At first, Ian and Ilona were hesitant to get married or not. For one thing, Ilona was in no hurry to stop flying, a decision that often accompanied the flight attendants' marriage in the 1970s. In addition, Ian and Ilona had already had previous marriages and Ian was the father of two children with his first wife.

Their respective marriages were "very short," says Ilona, who calls hers "meaningless."

"We'd been married before. So we had very little interest in marriage."

Ilona and Ian decided to avoid what was considered "normal" in the early 1970s. Instead of signing a marriage certificate, they became engaged to each other by buying a house on Long Island, New York, and living there together. But the couple had barely settled in when they received a letter in the mail explaining that their insurance was invalid because they were single.

Ilona and Ian needed to figure it out right away.

"The only way to do that was to elope quickly to Las Vegas and get married," Ilona says. "So that's what we did."

The wedding day in 1974 was more of a practical matter, but Ilona and Ian made the most of their honeymoon.

"We had a wonderful time," says Ilona. "We paraglided, we went horseback riding, we fished... whatever you can think of."

Ian and Ilona later learned that Ian's pilot friends had placed bets on how long the marriage would last: the general consensus was that Ilona and Ian would divorce in three years.

"They didn't think he or I were ready to settle down," says Ilona, who adopted Ian's surname when he got married, becoming Ilona Duncan. "They thought we were more like two people who wanted to have fun and would get tired of each other."

It was true that both Ilona and Ian had "strong personalities," as she puts it. They argued from time to time. But when they heard about the bets, they shrugged their shoulders. They were confident in their future.

"A lot of people lost their bets," Ilona says now, laughing. "I guess people didn't know us that well."

Ilona continued to fly for a few years after getting married, but retired when she had children. Nonetheless, Ian continued to fly Pan Am aircraft, so travel continued to be one of the pillars of his family life.

Ilona happily remembers a time Ian spent in Sydney, Australia.

"We flew to Fiji and Samoa, and spent a lot of time on the beach. We went to the Great Barrier Reef," he says.

After Pan Am, Ilona became a language teacher, something Ian encouraged wholeheartedly. Ian started working for the aircraft manufacturer Airbus and the Duncan family spent time living in France.

Navigating life together

Ian and Ilona continued to travel after retiring. Here they are in China, on the Great Wall. Credit: Ilona Duncan

Traveling "was never something that stopped for us, because we always enjoyed it," says Ilona.

On their 25th wedding anniversary, Ian took Ilona to Rome. He booked a room at the Metropole Hotel, the place where they first crossed paths.

Ian retired from aviation in the late 1990s, but not from exploration. He and Ilona bought an RV and spent two years traveling the United States together. Once again, the friends bet that Ian and Ilona would drive each other crazy.

But the experience, though sometimes difficult, only brought them closer together.

"I think the most important thing is that we started our marriage with a lot of love," Ilona says.

This solid foundation also helped Ian and Ilona when their daughter passed away.

"We had a lot of tragedies in our lives," Ilona says. "When you're very much in love, you can overcome a lot of things."

Ian died in 2021, aged 86. She spent the last two decades of her life with Ilona at their waterside home in Virginia, a place she describes as a "quiet place."

"That's where we end up," she says. "Everybody's like, how the hell can you come to Virginia after you've lived in all those places? But I think every place I lived had a purpose at the time."

Ilona still lives in Virginia, in a waterfront home on the Chesapeake Bay.

"I have beautiful views and a lot of friends here," he says.

Ilona, now 78, spends winters with her son and daughter-in-law in Florida. She is also very close to one of her stepsons, from Ian's first marriage, who inherited his father's love of flying and has worked as a pilot for 30 years. Ilona also enjoys spending time with her grandchildren.

In Virginia, Ilona devotes her time to performing in the local theater and choir. He has also written several books about his life in recent years, including, most recently, a biography of Ian.

She misses him terribly, but strives to make the most of each day.

"I'm curious about life, even at an advanced age," he says. "So this hasn't changed."

Ilona also enjoys reflecting on her itinerant life, her incredible career, and her love story with Ian, spanning five decades.

"My husband always said, 'People love good love stories,'" Ilona says. "We were lucky enough to have a beautiful love story."

"I still get butterflies in my stomach. I was very much in love with him. Today I think of him, now that he is gone. And I don't think of him like I did when he was sick those last two years. I think of the lovely man I met. And when I think about him, I'm still very much in love."

This story was published on November 8 and has been updated