Like an estimated 30 million other Americans, Los Angeles socialite Brooke Knapp boarded every flight with the feeling it would be her last. Unlike all but the plucky few, she decided to tackle her fear head-on, with flying lessons. "I was so scared that I didn't show up for half of them," she confesses. "And even when I did show up I was 45 minutes late." Gradually, though, her fear was transformed. Today Knapp, 40ish, is a professional pilot—and holder of the new around-the-world speed record for light "business class" jets. She made the global journey earlier this year in 50 hours 22 minutes 42 seconds, surpassing the previous record by 15 hours. "That flight was very important to me," she says. "The challenge was to go from total fear to being totally accepted by my peers."

At first, Knapp says, her journey was nixed by several prospective sponsors "because they didn't want a woman pilot." Finally she raised $80,000 to cover fuel and other expenses. The eight-passenger American Dream took off from San Francisco International Airport at 8 a.m. with Knapp, a crew of two male co-pilots, a maintenance crew chief and huge platters of food and clothing for every climate. Too excited to sleep except for two-hour naps, the pilots spent their time listening to music and eating fried chicken. Observed Knapp ruefully: "Aviation is long hours of boredom interrupted by moments of sheer terror."

Knapp's worst scare came toward the end of the east-to-west voyage at 41,000 feet over the Pacific. A leak in the fuel system forced the plane to make an emergency landing on the remote Pacific island of Ponape. The tiny, deserted runway was nestled in a lush jungle where exotic birds and monkeys chattered noisily. As he repaired the plane in the tropical heat, co-pilot Paul Broyles murmured, "This has got to be where King Kong was born."

Other stops on the flight plan had been determined by good weather and politics. At Stansted, 35 miles north of London, where The American Dream touched down at 2:20 a.m., Knapp was greeted by two bejeweled ladies in mink coats who presented her with a medallion from the British Women Pilots' Association. Avoiding the Soviet Union, Israel and Iran, The American Dream made a total of 12 refueling landings in nine countries. Always mindful of waiting photographers, who had been alerted to the world speed attempt, Knapp applied fresh makeup at every stop. In Bahrain, however, she stayed in the plane. "They aren't used to seeing women in any sort of independent position," she explains. "So why should I offend them?"

Fourteen and a half hours later The American Dream was in Guam, where the crew was received by military officials, television cameras and natives hawking brochures touting Guam as "the home of Miss World." Within 15 minutes Knapp and her team were back in the air, 14 hours—and one unexpected landing—from San Francisco.

Despite her excursion, Knapp refuses to consider herself an adventurer. After all, The American Dream, which sports a wood-paneled bar with cut-crystal decanters and Ultrasuede wall coverings, is the same plane she uses for work. As head of Jet Airways Inc., a Los Angeles-based charter company, she supervises a fleet of seven planes that fly 39,000 miles per week. Her clients are mostly top-level executives and such celebrities as Bob Hope, Jerry Brown and Elton John, who can afford her $1,000-an-hour fee.

Nothing in her background prepared Knapp for such heights. A pro golfer's daughter, she grew up on a citrus fruit ranch in Winter Haven, Fla. and got her B.A. (with honors) at UCLA. While working in San Francisco in 1970, she met and married Charles Knapp, an expert aerial-acrobatic pilot and a record-holding helium balloonist. In 1976 the couple moved to an elegant clifftop home in Bel Air. Charles, a major Pan Am stockholder, is chairman of California's State Savings & Loan Association and of its high-profile parent company, Financial Corp. of America. Says Brooke: "We're both classic over-achievers."

Today the Knapps fly around the country the way their neighbors drive around the block. Such risk-taking makes pilots "an arrogant bunch," concedes Brooke. "But let's face it, flying is sexy. It's romance beyond your wildest dreams."