Officials of at least three major aerospace companies are actively looking for plant sites in Utah, the Deseret News has learned. If current plans develop, state employment could be boosted by several thousand jobs.

Aides to the three companies, McDonnell Douglas, Aero-jet-General and Grumman Corp., spoke to the News on the condition that their names not be used.McDonnell Douglas built a plant at Salt Lake City last year to make panels for the planned Air Force C-17 jet transport, then decided to use the facility for commercial aircraft parts production. McDonnell Douglas still needs manufacturing space for the C-17, which will not be flown for another two years, and is looking for a site in the Ogden area, company officials said.

The company builds large transport jets at its Long Beach, Calif., plant, which has no room for additional growth. Thus it needs to expand if the C-17 program gets congressional funding on time. There is some possibility that the C-17 could be deferred or cut back by the defense budget crunch, although the Army badly wants the big cargo plane. The Air Force, Defense Department sources said, might be willing to see it delayed.

Ironically, the C-17 program was attacked as a boondoggle a year ago by Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah. After Owens was both criticized and praised, the program was approved by Congress, but McDonnell Douglas decided not to go ahead with it in Utah after all.

The alternate to the C-17 that Owens favored was the C-5-B transport, built in Georgia by Lockheed. Lockheed and Rep. Buddy Darden, D-Ga., fought to buy more of the older, cheaper, C-5 design but were turned down by Congress.

In another bit of irony, Lockheed bid on and won a $1 billion C-17 subcontract for wing assemblies two months later.

Aerojet-General has been looking at locations in Provo and Ogden for a plant for its DIVAD system, now located in California, with the third alternate in Texas. A decision by Aerojet is likely in November, officials said.

Grumman, with headquarters in Farmingdale, N.Y., is also reported looking for Utah real estate for aerospace work. Grumman builds the Navy's F-14A Tomcat jet fighter. The follow-on F-14D model is to be in production in two years, and the company could be looking for a Western site for Tomcat components, Navy officials here suggested.