Hiuaz Kairovna Dospanova was the only female pilot and navigator from Kazakhstan to serve during the Second World War.
Dospanova was born in 1922 in the village of Ganyushkino, Kazakhstan. She was an excellent student and graduated with honours from high school No. 1 in Uralsk in 1940. Dospanova was a member of her local flying club where she received her pilot’s license.
Dospanova then moved to Moscow where she applied for admission to the Air Force Academy in Zhukovsky but was initially refused. She decided to study at First Moscow Medical Institute, where she was accepted without examination. A year later, the Second World War began. Women had been attempting to join the war effort in combat roles since the beginning, but it was difficult. Many had sent letters appealing to Colonel Marina Raskova, a Soviet pilot who was known as the “Russian Amelia Earhart”. Raskova lobbied to find ways for women to take an active role in the war and was highly successful, leading to women being eligible for the draft and even convincing the military to establish all-female units.
In October of 1941 Josef Stalin ordered Raskova to establish a trio of all-female air squads. The only one that remained exclusively female was the team of night bombers, the 588th Regiment, where everyone from the pilots, to the commanders, to the mechanics were women. Dospanova became a member of the 588th Regiment in May 1942 where she served as navigator before later becoming the head of communication of the 46th Guards Night Bomber Regiment.
The women faced difficulties with equipment, having to fly Polikarpov Po-2 aircraft which were two-seated, open-cockpit bi-planes that were obsolete even then. The planes were made of plywood frames covered with stretched canvas and were light, slow and provided no protection to those inside them. This did provide a slight advantage though, in that they were hard to target due to their slower stall-speed and they could take off and land almost anywhere. The planes had exposed cockpits, and pilots flying in the dead of night often got frostbite.
As their planes were vulnerable the cover of night was necessary for both their survival and success. Three planes would leave simultaneously, two drew searchlights and gunfire and the third remained conceled by the darkness so that it could drop bombs. The pilots would also kill their engines when they were near their targets and glide over while deploying their bombs to ensure that they would not be discovered. The German soldiers began referring to the women of the 588th Regiment as “Nachthexen,” or “Night Witches,” a name the pilots of the 588th took on with pride. There were rumours that the women had been given pills and treatments which gave them the night vision of a cat.
Dospanova made more than 300 combat missions to the southern front, the North Caucasus, Transcaucasia, Ukraine and Belarus. In April 1943 she was seriously injured while making a landing in blackout conditions. She survived by fractured both of her legs. Three months later she returned to the regiment to continue fighting. The 558th squadron was never disbanded, but became the 46th Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment.
After the war, Dospanova initially considered a return to medical school but dismissed the idea. First Secretary of the West Kazakhstan Regional Party Mynaidar Salin suggested that she work for the Communist Party and, after the approval of the regional party committee instructor she began her employment at the Higher Party School in Alma-Ata. She progressed from a party committee instructor in Western Kazakhstan to the secretary of the Central Committee of the Lenin Communist Union of Youth of Kazakhstan. In 1951 Dospanova was elected as the deputy of the Supreme Council of the Kazakh SSR, at the first session she was appointed as the secretary of the Presidium. Before her retirement, Dospanova was secretary of the Almaty City Party Committee and played an active role in the development and life of the then-capital. She died in 2008.
Dospanova was awarded with the Order of the Red Star, medals for the defense of the Caucasus, for the liberation of Warsaw, and for victory over Germany. Four years before her death, In December 2004, the Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev decreed that Dospanova was to be awarded the title of “Halyk Kaharmany” (National Hero) for her heroic actions as well as the honour of a special distinction: the Gold Star and the Otan Order.