She was a Pan Am flight attendant, he was a pilot. Their inflight meeting sparked a 50-year romance

Flight attendant Ilona Zahn was less than impressed when she first met pilot Ian Duncan.

It was 1970. Ilona was working the first class cabin on the Pan American World Airways flight from Rome to Tehran, traveling via Beirut and Damascus.

Ilona first caught sight of Ian a couple of hours before take off. She was standing, in her sky blue Pan Am uniform, with the rest of the crew in the lobby of Rome’s Metropole Hotel.

“We were waiting, chit-chatting,” Ilona recalls.

Ian walked over – tall, pilot stripes on each shoulder – and greeted the crew, introducing himself as the upcoming flight’s first officer.

“Most pilots were very friendly, they would come over if you haven’t met them before, introducing themselves,” Ilona tells CNN Travel today. “I thought he was friendly, but I didn’t think much else of him.”

Cut to a couple of hours later. The passengers were boarding a Boeing 707 at the airport. Ilona was sorting through the supplies in the first class galley. Serving in first class also meant keeping tabs on the pilots and their needs, so Ilona wasn’t surprised when another flight attendant approached her with a string of drink orders direct from the cockpit.

Ilona Zahn, pictured here sitting on a Boeing 707, loved working for Pan Am. - Ilona Duncan
Ilona Zahn, pictured here sitting on a Boeing 707, loved working for Pan Am. - Ilona Duncan

Ilona’s colleague listed soda, tea and coffee requirements from the engineer and the captain. Then, a little embarrassed, she added co-pilot Ian’s request:

“He said he wants it ‘blonde and sweet like the galley girl.’”

Ilona rolled her eyes. She loved her job and traveling the globe, but these kinds of comments, received daily from colleagues and passengers alike, were wearing.

“I had a lot of admirers, because I was pretty,” Ilona says today. “I wasn’t in the mood that day to have somebody bothering me. ‘Just leave me alone, please.’ That was my idea.”

Ilona poured out a black coffee. Then she turned to her colleague, a glint flashing in her eye.

“Okay, he’s going to get it blonde and sweet,” she said. Then, she went to the bar and emptied Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper into the cup.

“Whatever god awful stuff I could imagine I put into his coffee,” recalls Ilona today. “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:

“She must like me to go through this much trouble.”

From Tehran to Rome

Here's Ilona and Ian pictured together in 1974. - Ilona Duncan
Here's Ilona and Ian pictured together in 1974. - Ilona Duncan

The flight arrived in Tehran late that evening. This was a pre-revolution Iran, and the Pan Am crew were ferried to the Royal Tehran Hilton, a luxury hotel in the foothills of the Elburz Mountains. So commenced the usual crew party. The group gathered in the captain’s room for cocktails and conversation into the early hours of the morning.

Ilona and Ian watched each other from opposite sides of the room. She appreciated that, after the coffee incident, he kept a respectful distance. She also appreciated his clothing choices – it was Ilona’s first time seeing Ian out of the Pan Am uniform and he was wearing dark trousers paired with a light-colored cashmere turtleneck. Ilona was 25. She estimated Ian was about 10 years older. He seemed to be well liked and respected by his colleagues.

The next morning, the phone in Ilona’s hotel bedroom rang at 10 a.m. Half asleep and baffled at who could be calling, Ilona answered warily.

It was Ian. “Do you fancy coming to the bazaar with me?” he asked.

Ilona agreed, but said she wouldn’t be up for heading out until later – she was catching up on sleep. The two arranged to meet in the afternoon, a handful of other crew members joining them. The group rode together in one of the hotel’s private vans.

Then they wandered around Tehan’s Grand Bazaar, perusing copper pots and bartering on caviar. After an hour or so Ilona was ready to head back to the hotel. Ian said he’d accompany her, and flagged down a taxi.

The cab quickly got stuck in stop-start traffic. With nothing to do but pass the time in conversation, Ian and Ilona found plenty to talk about. Ilona spoke about her past – born at the tail end of the Second World War in Germany, she’d consciously “divorced” her country as a young adult and since lived in London, New York and Paris. Ian said he was the American-born son of Scottish immigrants who’d dreamed all his life of flying airplanes.

“We never stopped talking. And we really enjoyed each other’s company. And that’s more or less what drew me to him,” says Ilona.

That evening, Ian and Ilona ate dinner at a Persian restaurant with their fellow crew members. Then, Ian asked Ilona if she wanted to see the view from his bedroom balcony, promising it was spectacular.

As they looked out over 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 evening walking around the city together. They threw coins in 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 went to Paris. They didn’t exchange phone numbers, or promise to meet again. But a few days later Ilona opened her crew mailbox at John F. Kennedy Airport and a note from Ian fell out. “I’d like to see you again,” it read. He suggested they bid on another flight to Rome and Tehran together.

An international love affair

Here's Ian and Ilona pictured in Sydney, Australia. - Ilona Duncan
Here's Ian and Ilona pictured in Sydney, Australia. - Ilona Duncan

So began a whirlwind, international courtship. Ian, as a senior first officer, generally got his first choice of flights. He’d let Ilona know his schedule and she’d try and bid on the same journeys. They’d often try to travel to Rome together. All Pan Am flight attendants were required to be fluent in at least one second language but Ilona could speak five – including Italian – so she often got first pick of Rome flights.

For the next two years, Ian and Ilona enjoyed what Ilona calls “a wonderful love affair.”

It was fun and exciting. Their jobs afforded them the chance to date across the world – from strolling along the Seine in Paris to walking around museums in London to exploring stores in Tokyo, to going on safari in Kenya.

“We had this wonderful time where we would fly almost every month together,” says Ilona.

When their flights didn’t coincide, they’d leave letters for one another at Intercontinental Hotels frequented by Pan Am crew. Or, if they were both in the air on different flights, they’d call each other via inflight Pan Am radio.

“Somebody would tell me, ‘I got somebody here who wants to talk to you,’” recalls Iona. “So I’d go into the cockpit. And there he was on the Pan Am radio, talking to me, 30,000 feet up in the air. Amazing. It was exciting.”

Their connection grew deeper.

“Over time, we really fell in love,” says Ilona.

Not everyone took Ilona and Ian’s romance as seriously as they did. Ilona recalls telling a New York girlfriend about Ian and being told he had a “history of love affairs.”

But to Ilona, Ian was different from the men she usually crossed paths with.

“Living in New York in the ‘60s, everybody and their brother wanted to date me,” she says.

“A lot of stewardesses dated rich men who thought they were doing you a favor taking you out, and that just didn’t sit well with me. I knew I wanted somebody with whom I could have a conversation.”

She’d always been a little wary about the Pan Am pilots, who were often charming but “they want to go to bed with you, and that’s it.”

But with Ian, “it just stuck.”

“We were just very much in love,” Ilona says today. “We had a lot of things in common. We both liked nature. We both agreed to do whatever the other person does. For example, I like classical music. I like opera. I like concerts. He went with me to that and I went fishing with him.”

Ian and Ilona weren’t secretive about their romance.

“We were known for being the couple in love. We would get to a station and people would say, ‘Here they are again, the lovey-doveys, stuff like that.’”

Some of their coworkers said it would never last, and there was a bit of teasing here and there. But others were also rooting for Ilona and Ian. On trips, if the captain got a bigger room than co-pilot Ian, he’d often offer it up so that Ian and Ilona could stay in the larger space together.

On the job, “there was often flirtation going on,” says Ilona.

“He would come to the galley and make sure everything was fine, just to take a look at me.”

Life at Pan Am

Here's Ilona photographed working in the galley of a Pan Am airplane. - Ilona Duncan
Here's Ilona photographed working in the galley of a Pan Am airplane. - Ilona Duncan

While Ilona was enjoying her romance with Ian, she was also keen to hold onto her independence. Ever since she’d left Germany in her late teens she’d been forging forward alone. She’d studied for a science degree, originally planning to become a doctor. Then her interest switched to languages and she learned French in Paris and got her Cambridge Proficiency Certificate in London. For a while she lived in New York, working at jewelry store Tiffany’s on Fifth Avenue.

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

“We really don’t need any volunteer work here at Pan American at the airport,” explained the man behind the counter. “But I’ll give you a free ticket to New York to interview. I know you’re going to be hired as a stewardess.”

Getting a job at Pan American was usually competitive, but Ilona had a fast pass from the Bermuda office. She walked into the office at JFK, paperwork in hand, and was offered a job on the spot.

“Our life was kind of signed over to Pan American. But I thought it was wonderful because I enjoyed the job so much,” says Ilona. “At the time, it was a very luxurious type of travel and I met a lot of wonderful people, not only celebrities, but many of those too.”

Ilona recalls interacting with movie stars Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren on the job.

There’s an allure of romance surrounding Pan Am today and Ilona confirms working as Pan Am flight attendant was “definitely glamorous.”

There were constant parties, “whether it was in New Delhi or in Bangkok, or in Beirut.”

“We sometimes were gone for two weeks at a time, flying from New York to Hong Kong and back,” says Ilona. “We always had fancy clothes with us, like a little black dress.”

Behind the glamor was also hard work.

“I scrambled eggs for 120 people in economy,” recalls Ilona.

But even when the job was tiring, Ilona loved it. She relished the chance to explore the globe, to see places other people only read about in travel brochures.

While working for Pan Am, Ilona also signed to a modeling agency. She did a number of advertisements for perfume and make-up. Then in 1971, she was hired to do an ad for Playboy on behalf of Pan Am.

“There are a lot of beautiful reasons for flying Pan Am,” read the advert. “Ilona Zahn is just one.”

The text described Ilona as “the girl who makes you feel at home. The girl who wears the Pan Am wings. She’s an angel.”

When Ilona read this for the first time, she thought it was “hilarious.”

Accompanying photos – taken over two days in West Hampton, Long Island and Manhattan – depicted Ilona horseback riding, shopping and at the beach. There were also a couple of shots Ilona at work, wearing her Pan Am uniform.

A few years later, Pan Am were looking for a flight attendant to pose for a full-size cardboard cutout set to be on show in company offices and travel agents across the world. Ilona was on their radar thanks to her modeling background. She went to the Pan Am building at 200 Park Avenue and found herself in a room with around 20 other flight attendants. They all posed for the photographs and then Pan Am picked their favorite shot: a full-length picture of Ilona, wearing the blue uniform, necktie and carrying a Pan Am bag.

“This was in 1975, 1976. The next thing, my poster was in every travel agent, every airport, every Pan Am office around the world,” recalls Ilona, who joked that Ian would now – quite literally – never be able to get away from her.

Eloping to Vegas

Ian and Ilona had initially been hesitant about marriage. For one, Ilona was in no rush to retire from flying – a move that often came hand-in-hand with marriage for flight attendants in the 1970s. But also, both Ian and Ilona had been married before, and Ian shared children with his first wife.

Their respective marriages were both “very short,” says Ilona, who calls her own “meaningless.”

“But nevertheless, we had been married before. So we had very little interest in marriage.”

Ilona and Ian decided to eschew what was deemed “normal” in the early 1970s. Rather than signing a marriage certificate, they committed to each other by purchasing a house in Long Island, New York and living there together. But the couple were barely settled before they received a letter in the mail explaining their insurance was invalid due to their unmarried status.

Ilona and Ian needed to resolve this right away.

“The only way to do this was to quickly elope to Las Vegas and get married,” says Ilona. “So that’s what we did.”

The wedding day, in 1974, was more of a practicality, but Ilona and Ian made the most of their Honeymoon.

“We had a wonderful time,” says Ilona. “We went parasailing and horseback riding, fishing – you name it.”

Ian and Ilona only found out later down the line that Ian’s pilot buddies took bets on how long the marriage would last – the general consensus was Ilona and Ian would be divorced within three years.

“They didn’t think either he or I would be ready to settle down,” says Ilona, who took Ian’s name when she 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 Ilona and Ian were both “strong personalities,” as she puts it. They’d argue from time to time. But when they heard about the bets, Ilona and Ian just shrugged them off. They were confident in their future.

“A lot of people lost their bets,” says Ilona today, laughing. “I guess people didn’t really know us that well.”

Ilona carried on flying for a few years after getting married, before stepping back when she had children. But Ian continued to pilot Pan Am planes, and so traveling remained a cornerstone of their family life.

Ilona happily recalls a period Ian spent based out of Sydney, Australia.

“We flew to Fiji and Samoa and we spent lots of time on the beach. We went to the Great Barrier Reef,” she says.

Post-Pan Am, Ilona became a language teacher, something Ian encouraged wholeheartedly. Ian started working for airplane manufacturer Airbus and the Duncan family spent a stint living in France.

Navigating life together

Ian and Ilona continued to travel after they both retired. Here they are in China on the Great Wall. - Ilona Duncan
Ian and Ilona continued to travel after they both retired. Here they are in China on the Great Wall. - Ilona Duncan

Traveling “never stopped for us, because we always enjoyed it,” says Ilona.

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

In the late 1990s, Ian retired from flying, but not from exploring. He and Ilona bought a campervan and spent two years traveling around the US together. Friends – once again – took bets that Ian and Ilona would drive each other crazy.

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

“I think the main thing that we had is we started the marriage with a lot of love,” says Ilona.

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

“We had a lot of tragedy in our lives,” says Ilona. “When you’re very much in love, you can overcome a lot of things.”

In 2021, Ian died, aged 86. He spent the last two decades of his life with Ilona in their home on the water in Virginia, a spot Ilona describes as a “peaceful place.”

“That’s where we ended up,” she says. “Everybody wonders, how in the world can you come to Virginia after you lived everywhere else? 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 a lovely view and lots of friends here,” she says.

Ilona, who is now 78, spends winters with her son and daughter in law in Florida. She’s also close with 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 relishes time spent with her step-grandchildren.

In Virginia, Ilona fills her time performing in the local theater and choir. She’s also written several books about her life over the past few years, including an autobiography, “My Jewish Great Grandmother”, and most recently, a biography of Ian called “Watch Me Take Off.”

Ilona misses him greatly, but strives to make the most of each day.

“I’m curious about life, even at my old age,” she says. “So this hasn’t changed.”

Ilona also enjoys reflecting on her country-hopping life, amazing career, and her five decade-spanning love story with Ian.

“My husband always said, ‘People really love a good love story,’” says Ilona. “We were lucky to have a beautiful love affair.”

“It still gives me butterflies in my stomach. I was very much in love with him. I think about him today, now that he is gone. And I don’t think about him the way he was when he was ill those last two years. I think about the charming man that I met. And when I think about him, I’m still very much in love.”

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