In World War II he successfully commanded an air brigade, air division, and air corps, reaching the rank of Airforce Colonel General and Air Army commander after the war. It was at this time that his son, Arkady Kamanin, became a fighter pilot at the age of 14, the youngest military pilot in world history.
From 1960-1971, General Kamanin was the head of cosmonaut training in the Soviet space program. He recruited and trained the first generation of cosmonauts, including Yuri Gagarin, Gherman Titov and Alexei Leonov. Kamanin was the Airforce representative to the space program, a proponent of manned orbital flight and Airforce influence over the Space Race. His diaries of this period, published in 1995-2001, are among the most important sources documenting the progress of the Soviet space program.
Nikolai Kamanin was born in Melenki, in Vladimir Governorate (now Melenkovsky District, Vladimir Oblast). Kamanin's grandfather was a wealthy shoemaker with his own workshop; however, his father, Pyotr Kamanin, broke with tradition and joined the Bolsheviks. He died in 1919 at the age of 49; mother, Stefanida Danilovna (1876–1964) lived all her life in Melenki. Stefanida and Pyotr Kamanin had 10 children; Nikolai survived all his four brothers. Alexander Ivanovich Kamanin, Nikolai's uncle, lived a very long life, including 50 years of religious hermitage, and had a reputation of a holy elder.
According to his son, Lev Kamanin, Nikolai Kamanin was actually born in 1909 and changed it to 1908 to cheat the Army admission staff when he volunteered in 1927. He passed the airforce physical test and completed the pilots' school in Borisoglebsk in 1929, trained by legendary pilot Victor Kholzunov. Kamanin was dispatched to the site of Russo-Chinese railroad conflict in the Far East, arriving one day after cease-fire. There, he joined the legendary Lenin Air Regiment, the first airforce unit in Soviet history. Kamanin flew a two-seater reconnaissance airplane, including 11-hour endurance flights over the Sea of Japan. His crewmate, incidentally, was an ethnic Chinese.
In February 1934, Chelyuskin steamship was crushed by Arctic ice in the Chukchi Sea. 104 crewmembers and passengers set their base on pack ice. At that time, United States grounded all arctic flights after a string of accidents, and the only rescue force on hand was Anatoly Liapidevsky and his crew of ANT-4. After 28 failed attempts, Liapidevski located the ice camp on 5 March landed and hauled out twelve of 104 survivors. A week later, on the second flight to ice camp, he crash-landed the airplane after an engine failure. The operation stalled. The Soviet government dispatched three groups of pilots from Far Eastern air bases.
The largest group of seven military and civilian reconnaissance pilots on Polikarpov R-5 biplanes, based in Primorsky Krai, was led by Kamanin (he later grounded one of the pilots for insubordination). The group sailed from Vladivostok 2 March 1934, disembarked at Olyutorka and landed at Vankarem airfield 1 April. Kamanin and Vasily Molokov flew from a temporary base in Vankarem settlement to the ice camp, saving 34 and 39 survivors. On their first flight from the ice camp, R-5 (designed as a two-seater) carried a crew of two, plus two men from Chelyuskin in the hull. The next flights added makeshift wing gondolas, carrying two more men per mission. Other pilots from the Kamanin team hauled them from Vankarem to Providence Bay seaport. The ice camp was completely evacuated 13 April 1934; Kamanin returned with the ship's bosun and eight riding dogs.
The next day, six pilots that flew to the ice camp and back (including Kamanin) and Sigizmund Levanevsky were announced as the first Heroes of the Soviet Union. Pilots who ferried survivors from Vankarem to Providence received Order of the Red Star.