So you want to fly like a bird? Since time immemorial, man has wanted to fly. And now we can, in the comfort and relative safety of an aeroplane, helicopter, glider or balloon. Yet still there are some who strive for self-powered flight. Did we learn nothing from the Greek fable of Icarus, who flew too close to the Sun and melted his waxen wings? Apparently not!

Every year at piers around the world, certain doughty individuals don a pair of wings and launch themselves seawards, flapping madly for a moment or two before they plummet into the waves. It is not very effective and hardly dignified.

However, there is a more convincing method of soaring in the air like a bird (or at least a flying squirrel) – the wingsuit. Available for a mere US$600 or so, this is a suit made from durable fabric and worn by daredevils who fling themselves out of aeroplanes. Unlike regular parachutists or skydivers, wingsuit wearers don’t immediately enter into free fall but instead ‘fly’.

Prototype suits were developed in the 1930s but were hugely unreliable, with several of the early pioneers dying while testing them out. However, in the 1980s Christoph Aarns, a German skydiver, made a great leap forward by augmenting his flying suit with extra webbing. The project was further advanced in the 1990s by Frenchman Patrick de Gayardon, who designed a suit with wing webbing between the legs and under each arm. The wingsuit that we know today was born, and it became commercially available in 1998.

Jumping in a wingsuit has been likened to a cross between skydiving and gliding. It’s certainly not a sport for beginners, and before attempting a jump, experts recommend that you complete 500 regular skydives.

Once you jump from your plane, spread your arms and legs to open the wings. The sensations you will feel are quite different to skydiving. Skydivers hurtle groundwards at some 195 kilometres per hour (120 mph) and can surge forward through the air at up to 100 kilometres per hour (62 mph). Wingsuit flyers, in contrast, fall about half as slowly as skydivers, but achieve horizontal speeds up to 145 kilometres per hour (90 mph).

This is because the suit transforms your body into an airfoil, allowing you to generate lots of lift and counter the effects of gravity in just the same way as an aircraft wing. The extra lift helps improve your glide ratio (the relationship between gravity, lift and drag) making it possible for you to advance forwards through the air.

Flying requires careful management of your rate of fall to create the optimum balance of lift and drag. Roll your shoulders forwards and tuck your chin into your neck to maximize forward propulsion. To increase your flying time (but reduce propulsion), lift your head and look forwards, bend at the hips, extend your arms and legs and ‘push down’ against the upward force.

Learn how to adjust your body shape to turn in the air. Keep movements small and controlled to avoid dangerous spins. And no matter how bird-like you feel, don’t be tempted to flap your arms, as this could result in you going into a disastrous dive or spin.

Once you’re feeling confident and have honed your flying skills, throw some mid-air acrobatics into your display. But don’t get too carried away, and remember, as your inevitable descent picks up speed, you will eventually need to deploy your parachute!

As something to aim for, in 2012 Japanese wingsuit flyer Shinichi Ito flew for a record horizontal distance of 26.9 kilometres (16.7 miles) above Yolo County, California, remaining airborne for more than five minutes.

Of course, if the harnessed power of gravity isn’t enough for you, there’s always the wingpack. This development of the wingsuit consists of strap-on carbon-fibre wings with a small integrated jet engine. While the technology is still in its infancy, it has had marked successes – in 2003 Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner  used a wingpack to cross the English Channel.

But still, there is a way to go before we truly rival the birds. Consider for instance the humble pigeon, who can cover a distance 75 times its own body length in a single second!